Georgia, like many other states, is in the midst of a child welfare crisis. Nearly 14,000 children were placed in foster care in December 2017 – an 80 percent increase over December 2010, primarily due to the opioid crisis. Even President Trump highlighted the need for healthy parents to take care of these children during the State of the Union as he commended a New Mexico police officer for talking a pregnant addict living on the streets into allowing them to adopt her unborn child so that baby would not wind up in state custody.
As more and more parents struggle with addiction and social isolation, it’s the children who are harmed most.
A bill before the Georgia Legislature aims to help change things for the better by encouraging those who need help to seek it by empowering parents or guardians to provide for short-term care for a child when life circumstances prevent them from doing so. Sponsored by Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta), the goal of this important piece of legislation is to keep families intact by giving them a safe place to turn for help in their own communities without the fear, stigma, and complexity that often accompanies involvement with DFCS.
This life-changing legislation is designed to encourage families to voluntarily seek help so that problems can be addressed much earlier and reduce the number of children who endure the trauma of being removed from their family into foster care.
Consider a mother dealing with job loss, eviction, domestic violence, homelessness or even addiction. If she lacks supportive extended family and friends, where can she turn? Unfortunately, the foster care system often is not adequately equipped or designed to reach families until it is too late, and the state only becomes involved with a family after there is sufficient reason to believe there has been abuse or neglect.
Through the process created by Georgia’s HB 159, families would be given a safe option for providing for the temporary care of their children while they get the help they need to achieve stability. Under this legislation, a parent may, through a limited power of attorney, delegate short-term caregiving authority for their child to another adult for a period not to exceed one year.
The child’s parents retain full legal and parental rights throughout the entire duration of the placement and may be reunited with their children at any time. Since the delegation is voluntary on the part of the parents, the legislation clarifies that the placement is not foster care and is not subject to foster care regulations.
HB 159 specifically allows community non-profit organizations, child placing agencies, and places of worship to provide assistance to families in their communities who need it most to find caregivers for the child. It further ensures the safety of all placements and allow the program to function within the existing legal system.
The proposed legislation is based on the work of a unique national charity called Safe Families for Children. Founded in Chicago in 2003, Safe Families has helped over 35,000 children in 27 states. Of these, more than 90 percent of children successfully returned home to their families within an average of 45 days and never enter foster care. Since the program is privately funded, no state tax dollars are used to achieve these results.
Compare these results with foster care. Nationally, nearly 440,000 children are living in foster care at an annual cost of over $25,000 per child. Once a child enters foster care, they will likely spend more than a year away from their families and with a 50 percent chance of ever returning home.
If a Mom or Dad sincerely wants to turn their life around, they have enough challenges on their plate. They should not have to also endure the emotional turmoil of losing their son or daughter for a year or more – let alone what it does to the children. Safe Families legislation will enable children to remain with someone close to home and give addicted and challenged parents an incentive to work toward a clean and healthy life.
Brown is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability that focuses on child welfare policy.