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GA child welfare leader fires back after accusations of state law violation

Georgia’s human services commissioner is firing back at an inquiry into the state’s foster care system, saying U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff’s efforts “leave the unfortunate impression that the goals of this investigation are political.”

Lawyers hired by the state wrote a letter Tuesday to the Georgia Democrat and Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, disputing testimony Monday by two Georgia juvenile judges who said Commissioner Candice Broce asked judges to violate state law by keeping some children inappropriately locked in juvenile detention centers.

The judges said Broce, in an August meeting, asked judges to order children with mental and behavioral problems to be detained by the Department of Juvenile Justice while the state’s Division of Family and Children Services looked for a place to house them.

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Candice Broce testifies at the state Capitol in Atlanta

This photo shows Georgia Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce, right, testifying in favor of a bill that would slow the flow of children into foster care, Feb. 16, 2023, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. ((AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File))

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“Commissioner Broce did not encourage judges to violate state law, and it has never been DFCS policy to punish a child with complex needs through detention,” wrote Patrick Strawbridge, a private lawyer hired by the state.

The letter says the judges’ statements Monday lacked “critically important context and accuracy” about a meeting that it says was intended to discuss recent changes in law, possible proposals for more legal changes and ways to better collaborate. It’s often hard to find an appropriate place to care for the most troubled juveniles.

“Ultimately the courts and DFCS are in this fight together, and must stay focused on productive efforts to improve Georgia’s child welfare system,” the letter states.

Ossoff spokesperson Jake Best said the U.S. Senate Judiciary Human Rights Subcommittee looks forward to interviewing DFCS employees about the judges’ testimony and that the panel will seek the agency’s cooperation.

“The subcommittee’s investigation is ongoing, and the essential question is whether children in foster care are protected from abuse and neglect given serious concerns raised for years by watchdogs, parents, and the press,” Best said in a statement.

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Monday’s testimony called into question what Broce has touted as one of her top goals: reducing the number of foster children held in hotels or state offices because the state has no other place to put them. The letter defended those efforts, saying the number of children in hotels continues to hover near zero, down from 50 to 70 a night at the beginning of the year. Placing children in hotels typically costs the state $1,500 per child per night, ties up social workers, and denies children a stable environment and needed treatment.

The letter also says the child welfare agency is appealing denials of insurance claims for foster children and is paying for residential treatment using other funds while it fights to get the coverage.

The department disputes other parts of Ossoff’s inquiry, including an analysis that found 1,790 children in state care were reported missing between 2018 and 2022. The letter said Ossoff’s staffers didn’t share the analysis, so it can’t respond directly, but said a 2022 federal report found 3% of Georgia’s foster children had been reported missing. That’s lower than the midpoint of 47 states included in the report. The agency also said it would seek a new state law to let it share more data with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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“DFCS is doing better on this front than many of its neighbors and other states of similar populations,” the letter stated.

It’s not clear what Ossoff may propose to remedy problems. He says the investigation is still gathering facts. He and Blackburn started the inquiry in February after questions arose about breakdowns in Georgia’s child welfare system, including in a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The agency says that despite Blackburn’s involvement, Democratic committee staffers appear to be “exclusively” running the inquiry. Ossoff will be up for reelection in 2026, and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp could challenge him. Questions about the child welfare system could be a campaign issue.

“The chairman’s investigators never once asked what kind of help or assistance the department could use from the federal government — and that need is considerable,” the letter stated. “DFCS remains committed to serving the interests of the state’s most vulnerable population and finding workable solutions to the difficulties inherent in working with foster children — with or without the subcommittee’s help.”

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