WILLIAMS AND FLATLEY: Senate Report Shines Light On Dysfunctional American Foster Care

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Legislation to protect children has been all the rage of late. From Capitol Hill to statehouses nationwide, lawmakers have advanced numerous bills ostensibly intended to safeguard children from abuse and exploitation. Yet through it all, the most vulnerable population of children — foster children — has been overlooked yet again. 

According to federal data for fiscal year 2021, the foster system in the United States cares for more than 606,000 children. For too many of them, the refuge of government protection proves itself to be a new hell. Staff shortages, incompetence, and outright neglect among caretakers and bureaucrats routinely endanger foster children, exposing them to the predations of abusers, child-rapists, and murderers. Lax cybersecurity protections in some states have also led to foster children being exploited through the leak and theft of sensitive information. 

In a report released last month, Democratic Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, then chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights, examined the foster system in his home state. His findings, while chilling, are representative of many other states’ systems. Ossoff did what few others have when he examined the rampant dysfunction that generally goes overlooked.

The report found that Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) engaged in appalling non-compliance. “The most recent DFCS audit … found that DFCS failed to properly assess and address safety concerns in 84% of cases reviewed,” Ossoff’s report reads. Never since 2016 has DFCS’s rate of success exceeded 41 percent. Worse still, audits reveal that in four of Georgia’s 14 regions, officials had bungled every single reviewed case. 

Children died due to these errors. A May-2023 case from Fulton County showed that DFCS received a report of a mother “wandering outside … in an obvious state of delusion and distress” with her naked one-year-old child. Breaking protocol, DFCS took no action beyond cursory attempts to contact the mother. Within two days, the mother had drowned the baby. 

Other instances of neglect, while non-fatal, make for similarly grim reading. In a case involving a caregiver who stabbed a child, DFCS declined to complete an “adequate safety assessment.” After the child reported the incident to DFCS, Ossoff’s report relates, the agency “took no action for over a month and did not contact the family for another four months.” In 2021, Glynn County DFCS “declined to open an investigation” into a complaint that an adult resident of a group home had raped a child resident. It reached this decision “without any inquiry,” Ossoff reports (quoting a state audit). Subsequently, “the child was raped again,” according to the report.

Nor does the malfeasance end at abusive neglect. In 2023, a report discovered that DFCS only intermittently — at best — provides for its wards’ physical and mental health. In just 40 percent of reviewed cases relating to physical health and 13 percent related to mental health did the agency supply adequate care. A 2021 audit found that “Psychotropic medications for foster children were adequately monitored in only 10% of applicable cases.”

Then there are attempts to offload inconvenient foster children. Commissioner Candice Broce of the Georgia Department of Human Services asked 30 juvenile court judges to “consider locking up children with special needs in juvenile detention centers while DFCS ‘looked for placements'” (per Ossoff’s report). Put differently, Broce sought to imprison special-needs minors to save the foster system the trouble of housing them. This would directly contravene not just basic ethics, but also Georgia law.

If asked whether the foster-care system should find missing children, or whether it should simply allow them to vanish, the average American would likely choose the former. In 61 cases from 2018 to 2022, however, DFCS chose the latter, discharging children labeled as “on runaway,” or missing.

Given such ghastly failures, and the other discomforts that necessarily attend foster care, many children have run away – perhaps an oddly appropriate response to abuse they experienced in the system. From 2018 to 2022, federal authorities received reports of nearly 1,800 children missing from DFCS care. Of these, Ossoff says, 410 likely fell prey to sex trafficking. As one girl, a former DFCS ward, testified, foster children endure sub-standard living conditions, frequent moves, overmedication, and isolation. At one group home, Ossoff’s report states, “staff fought other children in the home, used drugs, and prevented them from going to school.” Such conditions, the girl told the committee, made her feel like “an animal locked in a cage.”

Georgia’s abnormality is less the dismal quality of its foster system than the bright light that has been shone thereon. Children across America — children who have been failed utterly — constantly fall victim to bureaucratic incompetence and to violence enabled by rampant neglect. 

Unlike other children, foster children often lack stable and competent adult guardians with whom the buck of parenting stops. When a baby falls victim to a preventable murder or rape, when a neglected girl runs from a group home to a sex trafficker, officials must blame themselves.

While Congress attempts to “protect” children in cyberspace there is another class of children who desperately need their attention. Georgia is one state. But there are 49 others that need the same kind of scrutiny. A comprehensive review of the foster systems in every state must take place, and comprehensive reform must follow — without delay. Until then, children will continue to suffer and die while taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for this incompetence and negligence. 

David Williams is the president of Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

Maureen Flatley is an expert in government reform and oversight involving children. She has been an architect of a range of bills in Congress that reformed systems that serve children. In 2006, she was instrumental in the creation and passage of Masha’s Law, a bill that tripled the civil penalty for downloading child sexual-abuse material.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.