By Ed Brock
There was a time when Haleemah Rabia of Morrow thought all "welfare moms" just collected their checks and sat around watching soap operas all day.
Then she found herself pregnant with her sixth child and still longing to fulfill her desire to be a teacher. So she went to the Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services for help. They took care of her daycare expenses and transportation needs while she attended Clayton College & State University.
Now 45-year-old Rabia teaches math at CCSU, and she thanked the caseworkers at DFCS for their help during the department's Annual Legislative Breakfast on Wednesday.
"They held me accountable," Rabia said. "I was so proud to go to their office and show them how I was doing."
The Legislative Breakfast was a chance for the county's elected officials to hear the department's annual report and to meet people like Rabia and the people who help them. Guests at Wednesday's breakfast included Georgia Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, state Reps. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, and Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, and Clayton County Commissioners Virginia Gray and Carl Rhodenizer.
"What we're asking you is that you continue to give your love and support to us as we work to improve the lives of the citizens of Clayton County, especially the children," said the county's DFCS Director Cathy Ratti.
Ratti went on to give the audience a run down of the figures in the department's annual report.
In state fiscal year 2003, Clayton County DFCS received 2,028 reports for Child Protective Services, of which 89.07 percent were accepted for service and 60.79 percent were later closed as unsubstantiated.
Ratti said she was also encouraged by the policies of B.J. Walker, the new commissioner for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. She said Walker is giving individual agencies more leeway in using common sense in responding to reports of maltreatment, many of which turn out to be unsubstantiated.
"A lot of people were being labeled mal-treaters who were trying to do right for their kids but just needed a little help," Ratti said.
As a result the department has been able to make more use of diversion, or differential response, to assess a family's situation and provide them with resources and assistance without initiating a Child Protective Services investigation. In November they diverted 89 cases, DFCS Deputy Director Chuck Fischer said.
"This really frees up the time for people to do the job of protecting children who are at risk," Fischer said.
On another topic, Dodson was especially concerned that nearly 78,000 in the county are receiving Medicaid when more and more doctors are refusing to accept the government-funded insurance.
"You're going to really hit a crisis really soon," Dodson said.
Also according to the report, DFCS had 986 children in its custody at some point during the 2004 fiscal year. These children are placed in shelters like Rainbow House or in foster homes, and eventually many are reunited with their family, put into the custody of a family member or adopted. Some are emancipated or placed under guardianships.
For some, DFCS has a lasting impact on their lives. Another speaker at the breakfast, 18-year-old Tyshika Bush of Rex said she was taken into DFCS custody in 1994 along with her four siblings. They were all placed together in the same foster home.
"DFCS does have a policy of placing siblings together which I think is a very good idea because when you're taken away from your parents your siblings are all you have," Bush said.
Bush said she had troubles in her teen-age years, getting pregnant and falling behind in school. But with help from her DFCS case worker she graduated from high school on time, has a healthy 2-year-old and plans to attend Clayton College next year. She was feeling especially lonely at her high school graduation until she got a letter from Ratti.
"Just one word, congratulations, made me turn around, not want to be a statistic," said Bush, her voice cracking a little and tears running down her face.
Many of the DFCS workers in the room were crying as well by the time Bush finished her speech with emphasis on the department's independent living programs that help people like Rabia and her help themselves.
"They don't want you to lean on anybody, they want you to be independent," Bush said. "I don't have to be one of those number that's applying for food stamps."