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Child advocates look at county's strengths, weaknesses

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Child welfare statistics show Clayton County children are removed from abusive homes at the same rate as children in other Georgia counties.

Clayton children are more likely to be reunified with a relative, than they are in other counties, however. But less likely to be adopted.

Statistics also show they are more likely to suffer from abandonment, but less likely to suffer from inadequate housing or a caretaker's drug or alcohol abuse.

The statistics, compiled by the Georgia Supreme Court's Committee on Justice for Children, were broken down to compare Clayton County to state-wide averages, and were presented at the county's Justice for Children Summit on Wednesday.

"We're doing two things," said Steven C. Teske, Clayton juvenile court justice judge. "We're trying to assess where we are effective, and figure out where we need to be more effective."

Beth Locker, deputy project director for the Committee on Justice for Children, said the statistics can be used to explore what's really happening at the local level and can be used to understand what is seen everyday.

"When your responsibility is Clayton County," Locker said, "it's very hard to have any larger context."

Overall, Locker said, the statistics show that Clayton County is doing "very well" at taking care of abused and neglected children. Between October 2006 and November 2007, the county did a good job at reunifying children will family members, Locker said, and showed dramatic improvement in placement stability.

At the end of Locker's presentation, at the summit, attendees put together a list of strengths and weaknesses with the county's child welfare system.

Strengths, written up on poster-board paper, included the juvenile judges, organization, volunteers, law enforcement, the panel-review process, inter-department collaboration, community knowledge and business support.

Teske said a review of past years' statistics shows things have steadily improved since 2005, when a "Cooperative Agreement on the Handling of Certain Deprivation Cases" was signed by officials from 18 county agencies, municipal governments and private community agencies. That collaboration, Teske said, allows the different people in different agencies working on child welfare to cooperate smoothly.

The summit was an example of that, Teske said. The summit, which lasted most of the day Wednesday, was attended by more than 50 people, including judges, lawyers, police officers, Department of Family and Children Services representatives, a county commissioner, school system officials and child advocates.

"We can come here," Teske said, "and have a friendly discussion about how to improve and we don't have to even encounter the obstacles of turfdom."

Locker said it's important the different child welfare workers collaborate and work together, but it's important they be critical, too.

"The counties that seem to do the best are the ones that work together and seem to have a lot of collaborative talk, however, they also hold each other accountable," she said.

On three pieces of poster-board paper, the summit attendees wrote up the county's challenges, including placement for teens, thinking beyond foster care, long term care, out-of-state families, mental health needs, training of intake workers, caseworker turn over, information sharing, and the school system's accreditation crisis.

At the end of the summit, the attendees worked on an action plan, Teske said, laying out the needs' of the county's child welfare system and putting together a plan to get better. The plan will be available next week, he said, and will then be compared with the county and state statistics in six months.