Georgia Program Reopens Foster Care Cold Cases

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Michelle BarclayATLANTA -- In far north Georgia, 17-year-old “Brandon” lives in a group home. He has been the ward of two states in his short life. Put up for adoption in Tennessee, adopted, then abandoned in Georgia. He’s been in foster care for eight years.

There are somewhere between 250 and 300 kids like Brandon in Georgia: foster youths whose lives are stuck in a slide toward aging out of the foster system and into potential homelessness or prison, and with no connection with any family. They also risk a plain lack of success. All those adult ills are correlated with a child’s lack of what is called “permanency:” a safe, healthy, nurturing place and group of people to call home and family.

Brandon’s history is part of what landed his file on Michelle Barclay’s desk. The Atlanta attorney manages the Cold Case Project in the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children. The Project aims to change the outcomes for kids like Brandon who are facing a lack of permanency.

The state government “is not a good parent. It’s careless. It’s a machine,” said Barclay. “And so it’s not necessarily looking out … that homework is getting done. The child is more likely to move a lot. Moving does damage to a child. It’s disorienting. There’s no bonding happening: all that stuff a child needs to feel safe and to begin developing as a good human being.”

At any given time, about 8,000 youths are in Georgia’s custody. Most move out. But those who are languishing are the ones the Cold Case Project seeks.

When the project started in 2009, Barclay said, they found kids who had been wards of the state, sometimes bouncing from institution to placement and back again over eight years without any permanent resolution into a home. Now the coldest cases are about three to five years old.

From the outside, Barclay’s office looks rather cold too: she’s in one of several angular grey marble buildings set on two sides of the state capitol building in Atlanta. But inside, the old building has new carpet, fresh paint, clean windows and warm lighting. In government buildings like that, she and Committee attorneys, Georgia Division of Family and Children Services staff, statisticians, even a private investigator, meet to solve their cold cases.

First, foster kids’ profiles go into a custom computer model which assigns each of them a “temperature:” an index suggesting how likely they are to age out of the system without permanency. The Project data finds that coldest, most acute cases tend to correlate with red-flag scores on three key measures.

Long length of time in foster care bodes ill. Then, there’s the place where a child lives. More time in a smallish group home is more predictive of adult success than, say, time in a psychiatric residential treatment facility. “We need those places for short term impact, but if you start staying for one year, two years,” Barclay said, behaviors change and it gets harder to put a child in a family.

Finally, the per diem cost of a child’s care correlates with outcomes. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more money spent on a child, the worse the outcomes.  

That’s because, explained Barclay, high spending indicates changeable professionals like doctors, nurses, psychologists and shift workers are taking care of a child in exchange for pay, rather than caregivers in homes or group homes that may be motivated by empathy, religion, kindness or some other impetus, and who definitely don’t cycle out after an eight-hour shift.

“Does this child have anybody that they’re connected to that’s not being paid?” Barclay asked. The more visits and connections with people who care, the better.

When Barclay’s office opened Brandon’s case, the goal, just like for all foster children, was to increase his chances for success. That means putting them in the best possible home.

Most cold case children have gone through trauma and have bad behaviors or psychological issues to show for it, besides the additional stress of being a ward of the state. That makes it harder to find them a home, and not all caregivers, DFCS staff and the like have trauma-informed training, a problem exacerbated by turnover.

The Cold Case team has a few strategies to start warming up old cases.

Barclay is enthusiastic about a pre-adoption home that is about to open in DeKalb County, an Atlanta suburb, that will teach children how to live in a home, rather than a hospital or group home campus.

“This is really brand new nationally,” said Cindy Simpson, chief operating officer and director of program development at CHRIS Kids, a metro Atlanta nonprofit that runs services for foster youth who have emotional or behavioral challenges stemming from trauma. By May 1, CHRIS hopes to have opened their long-planned four-child house which will be run by trained foster parents, and which will have a social worker and a therapist to keep tabs on the children through a three- to four-month stay in the pre-adoption home, plus their move to a permanent home.

Such plans to hold a child’s and an adoptive family’s hands through the process could help placements turn out more successfully. Another route the Cold Case team looks at are the youths’ biological families.

That’s where the private investigator, a retired Atlanta Police homicide investigator, is key. He’s an expert at tracing people and drawing up foster kids’ family trees.

Sometimes the detective finds someone who remembers holding a child or going to a birthday party, Barclay said, and “they’re willing to step up because they’re connected.”

The PI went to work on Brandon’s case in Tennessee, which first meant a protracted fight with the state to see Brandon’s records. The investigator found a biological father in jail, a brother adopted into another family, and a mother.

Georgia’s model is generating attention in other states. This month, West Virginia is starting to train people to review cold cases.

In northeast Florida, a pair of judicial circuits started a cold case pilot program a little more than a year ago, said Kelsey Burnette, managing attorney for Children’s Legal Services, a part of the Department of Children and Families, for Circuits 3 and 8. Though it’s not identical, it takes inspiration from Georgia. Around Gainesville, Florida workers have opened a total of 10 cold cases so far, and placed two children in adoptive homes. “It’s been very encouraging,” Burnette said, and there’s official interest in expanding to other parts of the state.

Back in that Bartow County group home, thanks to the Cold Case team, Brandon finally has something most kids in his school may not appreciate: a daily conversation with his biological mother.

“She gave her son a phone and they are talking every single night,” said Barclay. The mother, who lives in Tennessee, wants her son to stay in the same school until he finishes, a helpful continuity too many foster kids miss.

 “She’s asking him to come live with her next year,” Barclay said. It turns out they live less than 15 miles apart, a short span it took years, work, and specialized state staff to bridge.

Photo by Maggie Lee