By Greg Bluestein, Alan Judd and Craig Schneider
Gov. Nathan Deal ousted the head of Georgia's child protection agency Thursday and instructed her successor to embark on a more aggressive approach to protecting children, which could send more children into foster care.
In a significant strategy change for the state Division of Family and Children Services, Deal said he has issued marching orders to reverse the "indoctrination" of caseworkers, who he said have been trained to focus more on keeping families together than protecting children.
"There is a culture within DFCS that probably has not produced the best results," Deal said of the focus on keeping families together. "While that is a laudable goal, I believe the more appropriate goal is the welfare of the child."
The distinction speaks to the toughest decision a caseworker can make -- whether to remove a child in danger of abuse or neglect into foster care, or to keep the child in a troubled household as the agency works to improve care.
Throughout the years, DFCS has swung its emphasis back and forth between these starkly different approaches, rarely finding the right balance.
Deal made clear the pendulum was on the move again.
His announcement drew mixed reactions from child welfare advocates. Some saw it as the correct action following the highly publicized deaths of two children and reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that agency mistakes contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012.
"I applaud Gov. Nathan Deal for being proactive and recognizing the need for major changes in this agency," said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.
Others expressed concerns that the shift was an election-year tactic that could introduce new troubles at the Division of Family and Children Services, such as an overwhelming spate of new cases and children drawn into foster care.
"Anybody can score points by saying, 'I'm going to get tough and protect children,'" said Normer Adams, a child advocate for 30 years. He worried that the new policy fails to recognize the emotional trauma on children removed from their homes. "My fear is that families will be destroyed in the name of child safety."
Deal said Bobby Cagle, who currently leads the state's early care department, will replace DFCS Director Sharon Hill, who will take a job in the state budget agency.
The governor also said he would support legislation next year that would make it a criminal offense for parents who know they are facing a DFCS investigation to move without telling state authorities. Child welfare advocates said that this is a common tactic by parents trying to evade the agency, and that investigations frequently stall when a family leaves town without telling anyone.
A similar scenario played out in the recent death of 5-year-old Heaven Woods, said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children. When DFCS intervened in the family's life, the girl's mother moved to another county without informing the agency, she said. The child died May 20 of blunt force trauma, and murder charges have been leveled against her mother, Amanda Hendrickson, and the mother's boyfriend, Roderick Buckner.
DFCS has yet to release the case file on the family. While some child advocates praised the prospect of tougher penalties, Willis questioned whether such a law would have much impact on parents desperate to escape the agency's eyes.
The appointment of Cagle as interim DFCS director drew praise from advocates, even as many complimented his predecessor. Hill had the support of many in the child welfare community, and some saw her departure as merely part of the sweep of change.
At the same time, Hill has overseen an agency long in the spotlight of public criticism for its problems with child protection as well as a crisis in the management of the food stamp system that resulted in thousands of Georgians wrongfully losing benefits.
Cagle was tapped in January 2011 to lead the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, where he oversaw the state's pre-kindergarten programs and rolled out new day care licensing rules.
While his status at DFCS is interim, officials are eyeing him to assume the post permanently.
Deal said he instructed Cagle to be "more aggressive" in handling early signs of abuse. He said under past administrations, case workers have been sanctioned for not meeting a certain family reunification ratio.
"Governor Deal has charged me with assuring Georgia's child welfare system is first and foremost laser-focused on the safety of our children," Cagle said.
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a longtime child advocate, praised Cagle's work with young children and said he understands the need to balance the goal of protecting a child with that of keeping a family together.
However, Oliver worried about the "repetitive leadership changes" occurring at the helm of DFCS -- an agency that regularly sees one leader replaced by another -- saying it "creates a level of chaos when there's a shuffling at the top."
Deal's ideas represent a shift of policies adopted during the administration of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, himself a former foster parent. Perdue had hired a get-tough DFCS director after the deaths of two 2-year-old boys, but that strategy resulted in a tremendous increase in caseloads and children taken into foster care.
In response, Perdue appointed B.J. Walker as social services commissioner, and she ordered DFCS caseworkers to leave as many children as possible in their homes.
From a statistical standpoint, Walker's policies succeeded. From 2004 to 2010, the number of children in Georgia's foster care system dropped from more than 14,000 to about 7,000. The shift away from foster care made a fiscal impact, as well. The state saved at least $120 million a year by halving the number of children in its care.
But an AJC investigation last year found that children suffered under the policies, known widely as "diversion." The newspaper examined the cases of 86 children who died in 2012 despite DFCS intervention in their families. In 50 of those cases, the agency had provided family "preservation" or "support" or similar services that kept children at home and out of foster care.
Deal said Cagle will report directly to the governor's office rather than to the commissioner of the Department of Human Services. Deal said further changes may come. He previously backed a plan to spend $27 million over the next three years to hire more than 500 caseworkers and supervisors for the agency.
Deal ruled out a special legislative session this year to create an autonomous child protection agency, but said he would back a proposal to make DFCS more independent if these changes succeed over the next six months. DFCS currently is part of the Human Services department.
"I think it's a very distinct possibility," he said. "We just want to see in the short-term whether it works better this way, and I think we'll see that."
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