ATLANTA - In the past two years, Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services, DFCS, has spent more than $3 million to catch up on past-due investigations and received millions more to hire 625 new caseworkers.
You would think that kind of investment would make a difference where it matters most – on the front line where caseworkers have to make the difficult assessment of whether a child is safe. But a statewide audit being conducted by the Office of the Child Advocate is raising questions as to whether that’s really happening.
DFCS Director Bobby Cagle has been candid in his conversations about the agency. He says real reform will take time; his Blueprint for Change is a five-year plan. He is currently touring the state trying to share his ideas and get input from others. But Ashley Willcott, the Director of the OCA, says children in broken and abusive families don't have time. They need change now.
Every day for the past two years, Anthony Woods has visited his daughter’s grave after work. He feels he was denied time with his little girl, Heaven, while she was alive. He doesn’t want to waste a moment now.
“Even though I can’t hold her hand, I still can place my hand on her headstone and tell her every night 'Everything's okay. Daddy will see you tomorrow,'" he said. "It’s going to be a whole different day.”
Heaven was only five years old when police said her mother, Amanda Hendrickson, and her boyfriend beat the little girl breaking her arm, and five ribs.
“They were just hearing Heaven moping, just moping," Woods explained. "She was trying to hold on -- grasping for air.”
But police said instead of getting Heaven medical help, they beat her some more. Beat her until she died.
Woods petitioned in court for custody of his daughter. DFCS records show he and other family members also reported suspected abuse multiple times, but the concerns were either unsubstantiated or written off as a father simply trying to bolster his custody case.
“Everyone got to touch that file, and never once took the initiative – 'Let’s open it up and let’s read. Let’s see what really happen,'” Woods said.
His daughter’s death helped create the call for the change. Willcott wanted to see what had come of it. Her office spent months auditing counties across the state to see if case workers were following policy, receiving manageable case loads, being properly trained and communicating effectively with other staff.
“What I wanted to see is how far it's trickled down in two years, whether it’s been able to trickle down,” she said.
The actual audit has not yet been released, but Willcott says it shows examples of good work and bad, but not necessarily change.
“I’m disheartened, I am disheartened," she said. "Am I surprised? No.”
Willcott could not yet go into the specific audit’s findings but says she did find examples of children and even case workers in dangerous situations. She says she brought those to Director Cagle’s attention immediately and praises the agency for being quick to respond.
Willcott says part of the problem is case worker turnover hasn’t changed. It’s roughly 35 percent. That means every year, DFCS is having to hire and train more than a third of its staff. Cases are going from person to person and, too often, getting lost in the system.
“Those are the children that something could happen to, theoretically," Willcott said. "They could end up one of the children that dies in the state of Georgia and it could have been prevented."
Caseworkers in some counties have told 11Alive they’re concerned training for new employees is inadequate. Others mistrust or have problems talking with supervisors, and some feel cases are being closed prematurely.
Willcott says the audit doesn't suggest the money DFCS has received has been improperly spent. Perhaps just the opposite. She believes pay needs to be increased to attract and retain good case workers and help reduce case loads.
The audit also reveals that money and administrative reforms can't protect children alone. The community has to get involved reporting abuse and providing foster homes and other supportive services for children in need.
When Woods' daughter died, she left behind a massive case file of missed opportunities to save her life. He wants to believe -- he needs to believe -- there were lessons learned.
DFCS Executive Summary on Scribd
“I still to this day have not read through that entire file," he said. "I don’t think I’ll be able to read through it.”
While Willcott says in some cases her investigators found policies had been broken and serious mistakes made, she wants the findings from her audit to be used to fix the problems, not fire or punish employees.
DFCS says it has not yet seen the full report itself, but did release this statement in response to our story:
"The Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is grateful for the work of watchdog agencies, such as the Office of Child Advocate (OCA), and other advocacy organizations to keep child safety and the challenges of building a strong child welfare system at the forefront of public discourse.
"The OCA and DFCS work in tandem to make Georgia a better place for its most vulnerable children. When the OCA identifies concerns with the way Division policies, practice or staffing impact the lives of children, Division leadership prioritize a resolution that is focused on ensuring the safety and well-being of children who come to the agency's attention.
"The OCA statewide audit of DFCS, while not yet available in full, appears to highlight many concerns Director Bobby Cagle has identified for improvement with the Blueprint for Change reform effort. The Blueprint for Change is a high-level view of the Division's reform plan that prioritizes robust workforce development, the adoption of a practice model and constituent engagement.
"The reform seeks to ensure the Division:
- has enough staff to respond to its growing caseload;
- is able to develop and retain highly-skilled case managers and supervisors who have a clear set of guiding principles to lead them through their work;
- can cultivate an informed group of stakeholders who can provide feedback on Division reforms and partner in efforts to serve Georgia's most vulnerable children.
"The Division is neither interested in a quick fix nor does it seek to deceive the public with a promise of a silver bullet. Director Cagle has been forthright in his estimation that this reform effort will assist in stabilizing the state's child welfare system over a period of at least five years, and intends to focus on long range strategies that will result in continuous improvements over the next several years."