The Foster Care System, Built to Protect Vulnerable Children, has Routinely Ignored Cases of Child Abuse and Trafficking
By Sydney Johnson
Sensitive Content Warning: This post discusses the death of a child due to child abuse.
On October 25, 2023, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held the first hearing in a series investigating The Human Rights of Foster Children. Led by Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), the hearings gave a platform to individual victims of Georgia’s Division of Family & Child Services (DFCS), victims’ families, child welfare experts, and employees of DFCS. In the first hearing, two victims and two experts shared their experiences with the system that is supposed to protect children from abuse, yet repeatedly failed to prevent physical abuse, sexual abuse, and child trafficking. The witnesses for the October 25 hearing were represented by Government Accountability Project.
The mother of a two-year-old child who died in foster custody was the first victim to testify. When she was wrongfully arrested and detained, DFCS was called to the scene and removed the toddler from her care. The mother had arranged for the child to go to her sister, who was a registered nurse, and brother-in-law, a federal law enforcement agent. Not only were they close family members, but also certified foster parents. However, DFCS refused to honor the mother’s wishes and placed the child with her father, who was inactive in her life, not certified as a foster parent, and did not have custody of the girl. Without the mother’s knowledge or agreement, the caseworker forged a Child Safety Plan for the toddler that would keep her at in the father’s custody.
After she was released from jail days later, the mother went to the father’s home to pick up the child. Upon arrival, the father declined to release the child into her care and showed her the falsified DFCS document stating he would have to call law enforcement if she attempted to remove the child from his care. The mother began to worry, not only because she did not sign that document, but because the father’s live-in girlfriend used methamphetamine. With the father working several overtime shifts, the child would be in the girlfriend’s care and the mother was worried for the child’s safety. She begged the DFCS supervisor to remove her child from the father’s custody and place her with the sister after expressing concern of the care and signs of meth use in the home. No one would listen to her.
On March 6, 2018, the child died of blunt force trauma to the back of the head and the girlfriend was subsequently convicted of the murder.
After the death of her daughter, the mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Georgia’s Division of Family & Child Services, citing the Child Safety Plan that was drawn up without her approval, the Agency’s knowledge of the live-in girlfriend’s documented history of child neglect, and its negligence in failing to investigate the live-in girlfriends’ drug use.
“[Her] death cannot be in vain. Nothing will bring her back. I’m here today to seek change. We need better oversight and training of the system. If someone had just listened to me and checked about my allegations, [she] would still be alive,” the mother of the child quoted in her testimony.
The second witness to testify was a former foster youth from Savannah, Georgia, who described the emotional impact of being assigned 18 different placements in five years. Only two of those placements were foster homes; the rest were group homes, institutions, or hotels. Often going more than six months without seeing her case manager, she felt abandoned and alone. One of her placements was in Devereux, a maximum-security residential treatment facility fortified by two barbed wire fences. Throughout the ten months she spent at Devereux, she testified, she was treated like an inmate—despite having committed no crime. She was only allowed to leave the facility for doctor’s appointments. The staff slammed her into walls, restrained her, and threw her into isolation for several days at a time. Like most of the other children at Devereux, she was prescribed multiple psychotropic medications in dosages that far exceeded recommendations, and her dosage was regularly increased so the staff could control her behavior. She was not given therapy—just a battery of drugs that made her feel hazy and sluggish.
Her final placement was a hotel where a DFCS employee instructed her to sign “a bunch of papers” with no context or explanation, and without an attorney or her caseworker present. Those papers signed her out of DFCS custody with no way to return to Savannah from Columbus, Georgia—5 hours away. After being connected with Brightside Advocacy and assigned a Court Appointed Special Advocate, she found a support network that provides her with hope.
“I am doing this so other youth know they can come out the other side,” she concluded her testimony.
Both victims took the first flight of their lives to share their traumatic stories with U.S. Senators. Both victims called for justice for the children stuck in a broken system and called on lawmakers to use their influence to change the system.
In the next part, expert witnesses, two advocates for foster children, will go into greater detail about the damaging effects of the system and the shocking details about the conditions some of the children face.