By Daniel Silliman
Those who work with Clayton County's child welfare system say their top challenges are:
· Reducing the number of children removed from parents.
· Creating consistency in case management, so children aren't shuffled from caseworker to caseworker.
· Creating stability in the fostering of older children.
At a "Justice for Children Summit" last month, more than 50 people from more than half a dozen county agencies, and organizations, put together the plan that listed the three toughest challenges -- and the strategies to meet them.
A review of the statistics, compiled by the Georgia Supreme Court's Committee on Justice for Children, showed Clayton County is ahead of many other counties in some areas, but still faces some seemingly intractable problems.
"There are a lot good things Clayton County is doing, based on the data," said Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge. "Well, that's fine, but where can we continue to improve?"
At the end of the day-long summit, the child-welfare workers broke up into five groups and looked at the three identified problems. They listed strategies with time frames between 90 days and 15 months.
According to the action plan, more than 10 percent of the children who are removed from their homes, are re-unified with their parents within 72 hours. The statewide average is a 10-percent rate of 72-hour removal-and-reunification, and the county child welfare workers would like to be at that same rate.
Strategies for change included evaluating 35 of these cases and finding common traits; increasing collaboration between agencies; having a Department of Family and Children Services worker on staff overnight to better direct the placement of children; and working to more quickly identify possible relatives who could care for children.
Teske said he personally has made a change, after the summit, in an attempt to reduce the remove-return rates. At an early hearing, the juvenile judge is now asking parents, under oath, "Are there any other relatives that are out there?"
The goal, according to Teske, is to get the children into a family-like situation as soon as possible. If they don't have to be removed, they shouldn't be, and if removed children can be placed with a relative they know, that's preferable to foster care.
"The sooner we can check out relatives, the better," Teske said.
For the children who do, because of their situation, need to be thrust into the care of the state and strangers, the county's child welfare workers would like to see one case worker handling each case from beginning to end. For these children, Teske said, everything in their lives has been thrown into chaos, and some point of consistency is desperately needed. In one case, cited by the juvenile judge, a single child in foster care was handled by more than 100 different case workers.
The action plan identifies the key problem as case worker burn-out, caused by the highly stressful, low-paying job.
Suggested solutions included: limiting case loads; putting a maximum cap on the number of cases given to one person, and allowing for increased cooperation and collaboration with other agencies and child-welfare workers.
Stability appears to be key in child welfare. Tackling a third challenge, the action plan sets the goal of increasing stability in the lives of teens and the special-needs children in foster care, by decreasing the number of moves they make.
As stability increases, Teske said, "we see results on a number of levels. We see a decline in delinquency cases and unruliness cases, and we see an increase in graduation rates, employment, and in the pursuit of post-high school education opportunities. The goal of stability is to achieve pro-social behaviors."
Steps to increasing stability, outlined in the "Action Plan," include giving foster parents a 10-day break to alleviate stress; allowing foster parents to express needs at the citizen review panel; increasing involvement of the Court Appointed Special Advocates; increasing training.
The action plan has been sent to the Committee on Justice for Children. As the county agencies and organizations turn in reports and gather data from their ongoing work, the committee will compare the results with the goals. That has already begun, Teske said, as statistics are calculated.
Another summit will be held in 2009, allowing those who work in the county's child welfare system to re-analyze the strengths and the needs of the county's system.