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An Atlanta child advocacy law center is challenging the state to fix foster care systems in Fulton and DeKalb counties that are “dangerously overburdened, mismanaged and out of control.” The Keenan’s Kids Law Center on Thursday asked a Fulton County Superior Court judge to force state agencies to upgrade the foster care system in Georgia’s two largest counties to meet national standards of foster care because proposed reforms were never implemented. The suit seeks an injunction to stop “ongoing violations of state law and [to] ensure that the county’s foster children receive proper care, protection, treatment and services while in the state’s custody.” It asks the court to declare that foster children have “a constitutional and statutory right” to live in safe and appropriate housing while in government custody, and have permanent homes and access to health care, educational services and adequate legal counsel. In addition, the suit asks that adoptions not be delayed or denied on the basis of race by DHR staff seeking to place black children with black families. The complaint — filed by the Keenan’s Kids Law Center in conjunction with the national child advocacy organization Children’s Rights Inc. of New York — seeks class action status for an estimated 3,000 foster children in Fulton and DeKalb. Kenny v. Barnes, No. 2002CV54182 (Fult. Super. June 6, 2002). “The governor has said repeatedly that he wants to make these improvements, that they have to be made,” Jane G. Okrasinski, legal director of the Keenan Center, said Thursday. “We’ve known about these problems for years, if not decades. For one reason or another, we haven’t seen the kind of change we need to see, or believe is imperative. By bringing this lawsuit and bringing in the judiciary, we may be able to penetrate the barriers between people who want to do the right thing and children whose needs are not being met.” The suit is the first major effort on behalf of children in the custody of the state, Okrasinski said. Atlanta attorney Don C. Keenan, a longtime legal advocate for the state’s foster children, founded the center last year to seek reforms, primarily through litigation, where he has charged that the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate has failed. “The objective is not to lay blame,” she said. “The objective is not to spend a lot of money in legal fees. The objective is to find solutions and move as efficiently as possible in improving conditions for children who depend on the state for protection and care.” Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, said her organization joined in the suit after staff members spent more than a year investigating Georgia’s child welfare system. “We do bring lawsuits around the country in systems where there are serious problems affecting children and where systems are not reforming themselves,” she said. “The system [in Georgia] is in need of reform. State officials know that and haven’t taken aggressive action. We are asking the court to become involved because state officials are not acting quickly and aggressively.” Georgia Department of Human Resources Commissioner James Martin said he had reviewed the suit briefly and sent it to Baker’s office “for them to defend. I really can’t talk about the litigation.” He continued, “The litigation doesn’t change our commitment to improving our child welfare system. Gov. [Roy E.] Barnes put $30 million towards it in [in fiscal year] ’02 and $14 million in ’03 to aggressively improve our child welfare system, and we believe we are making progress. We are going to continue our focus on our child welfare system, and will improve the system by appropriating money.” The suit names nine minors — all of them by pseudonyms — who are in foster care either in DeKalb or Fulton. It concentrates on those counties, rather than the entire state, because a third of the state’s foster children live in either Fulton or DeKalb, Okrasinski said. “They have all the problems that exist statewide and they probably have them the worst.” But, she added, “We hope this lawsuit will bring about change statewide.” SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS The suit names as defendants Barnes, Commissioner Martin, the Department of Family and Children Services in Fulton and DeKalb counties, Fulton DFACS Director Beverly Jones, DeKalb DFACS Director Wayne Drummond and the Fulton and DeKalb county governments. The systemic problems enumerated in the suit include: � dangerously large foster caseloads that are more than double, and sometimes triple, national standards that limit foster care caseworkers to 12 to 15 cases; � case workers that a DHR report states “do not understand basic social work principles”; � the consistent placement of foster children in unsafe or inappropriate foster homes and residential facilities; � a rate of abuse and neglect among Georgia’s foster children that is nearly double the national rate; � placement of foster children in emergency shelters for months and sometimes years at a time where supervision is “grossly inadequate, [and] the physical conditions are often overcrowded, unsanitary and in severe disrepair”; � a lack of basic medical, dental and mental health care for foster children; � a system that frequently delays or denies placement of black children in adoptive homes on the basis of their race or color, despite the availability of willing and suitable adoptive parents who are not also black; � county shelters that house foster children without homes are located in dangerous neighborhoods where drug trafficking, gang activity, prostitution and other criminal activities are pervasive; � routinely placing violent or aggressive children, including those with histories of sexual assault, together with more vulnerable children, including those who have been sexually abused; � routine failure to enroll shelter children of compulsory school age in public school; � a failure to screen staff at county DFACS shelters for references, prior experience and criminal backgrounds; � a routine failure to monitor foster children, foster homes and foster shelters — children allegedly often go six months or more without seeing a caseworker, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and neglect; � a failure to close promptly foster homes where children have been abused or neglected; � the frequent separation of teen mothers in foster care from their children, and brothers from sisters; and � a routine failure to terminate parental rights for children who cannot be returned safely to their parents or to identify and recruit adoptive families in which to place foster children. ‘OVERCROWDED’ SHELTERS The suit targets two DFACS shelters, one in Fulton and one in DeKalb, as “consistently overcrowded” and riddled with such problems as chronic overcrowding. Designed to house no more than 85 children, the Fulton shelter has housed as many as 118. The DeKalb shelter, designed for no more than 35 foster children, has housed as many as 55, according to the suit, forcing foster children to sleep on the floor. The suit also asks the court to declare both shelters public nuisances. DFACS in both counties has been given “ample opportunity to rectify their manner of operation of the Fulton and DeKalb shelters,” the complaint states. “They have been more than negligent in their operation of these facilities.” Okrasinski said she does not know how to fix the problems outlined in the suit. In some cases, judges have taken control and placed a department or system in receivership in order to correct long-term, intractable problems. The Keenan Center is not asking for receivership at this point, she said. Nor is it asking for a preliminary injunction to force immediate relief or to close down the shelters, even if they are found to be a public nuisance. “There is not a place for kids to go,” she said. Rather, “there are things short of asking for closure of the shelters, although that is the ultimate goal of the state, and I think it should be the ultimate goal of the state. We acknowledge we can’t go in and shut the doors tomorrow. We do acknowledge there are things that can be done tomorrow that could improve the conditions of children who are there.”

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