ATLANTA – Every day in Georgia, at least 50 children in foster care sleep in a hotel or office of the Georgia Department of Family and Child Services, according to the department charged with investigating reports of child abuse and neglect.
It’s a practice called “hoteling,” said DFCS Director Candice Bross. Children considered “difficult” often have difficulty obtaining placement due to the increased level of supervision they may require and are most likely to be placed.
“If a child is suicidal, homicidal, suffering from an active addiction, sexually or physically aggressive, criminal or disabled, we may not be able to find a properly equipped foster family or group home at all,” Bruce said. “Demand far exceeds supply for complex children.”
In fiscal year 2022, DFCS spent $28 million on hotel costs.
“We were determined to end hospitality, a practice born of necessity but contrary to our mission and crushing our workforce and derailing life-saving work,” Brose said. “You cannot make progress on your foster care cases if you are looking after a high-needs child in the office or hotel room. Burnout is inevitable. And once you opt out, your affairs are immediately redistributed among the remaining resilient few.”
The agency launched a pilot program for providers to increase day care for every child at risk of being hospitalized, a cost that totaled more than $7 million for day housing and staffing, according to Broce. The pilot helped reduce the number of children housed in an office or hotel to approximately 20 per day by last June.
“A child in our care now spends an average of fewer total days in a hotel and we have endured short stays for children without the highest levels of need,” Brose said. “These days, the children with the longest stays in a hotel or office are the most complex youth in our care, and sometimes new youth with high needs enter our care faster than we can accommodate existing youth in the hotel.”
During his Jan. 17 presentation to a joint House-Senate appropriations meeting, Brose said there were 63 DFCS children in hotels across the state the night before. Approximately 16% had a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of autism, 11% had an IQ below 70, and 40% had a criminal history. While two-thirds of these children were detained due to abuse or neglect, Brose suggests that at least one-third of these children could avoid foster care if adequate health care services were available and accessible.
The inability of parents or caregivers to obtain appropriate medical or psychiatric services to meet the child’s needs often results in a judge ordering the child into DFCS custody. Sometimes the parent or caregiver claims they fear for the child’s safety or their own safety, Brousse said.
“There is a widespread but mistaken belief throughout Georgia that DFCS has special access to services and treatment, particularly inpatient psychiatric treatment,” Brose said. “Your heart breaks for these parents who are really struggling to help their high needs child. This child doesn’t have to go into foster care to get what they need, but it happens all the time. There will be no evidence of abuse or neglect. Behavioral services, psychological counseling, and psychiatric treatment for children are especially difficult to find these days.
Earlier, stronger interventions could help families without removing the child from their home, Bross added.
The biggest challenge in DFCS’s foster care program, Brose said, is the aggressive teenagers — some charged with serious crimes — that foster care isn’t equipped to handle.
“Imagine a 20-year-old social worker with a master’s degree who has 20-some cases on her plate who gets an email at 3pm on a Friday – subject: Court order attached, still gathering information – to go pick up a teenager a boy accused of adult rape with a long history of violence, just in her Honda Civic,” Brose described. “She’ll probably leave right then and there. And foster families and group homes are reluctant to take in such aggressive youths… They end up in hotels at serious risk.”
This legislative session, DFCS officials plan to introduce legislation to “fix statutory loopholes and ambiguous definitions and conflicting terms” and strengthen efforts to eliminate hospitality. The agency also plans to improve the efficiency of document access and record keeping of children in DFCS custody.
“When we are able to track down hard copies, seek information from relatives and friends, and ultimately get hold of child-specific data prior to foster care, we often see a child who was already enrolled in Medicaid or at least eligible for but not received the appropriate services and treatment to mitigate the health problems that compel us to leave them in custody,” Brose said. “Theoretically, their family had health care at their fingertips.”
Improving Medicaid coverage can help address a child’s needs earlier and more effectively, Brose said.
Of the 10,750 children currently in foster care, more than 6,600 are in foster care; 2,000 are staying with relatives; and 1,314 live in group homes or group homes.
After Broce’s presentation to the Joint Appropriations Committee, both Republicans and Democrats voiced support for helping the agency eliminate hospitality.
“I’m confident they’ll be able to get rid of the hospitality industry,” said state Rep. Matt Hatchett, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Minority Leader James Beverly voiced support on behalf of Democrats.
“I know our caucus is absolutely committed, as is yours, to ending hospitality in the state of Georgia,” Beverly said. “I invite my fellow Republicans to this space where we work together to end hospitality, let’s work together to provide health care to all Georgians who need it.”