U.S. Senate Panel Hears Tragic Stories from Georgia’s Foster Care System

Dave Williams

Monday, October 30th, 2023

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The mother of a murdered two-year-old girl and a young woman neglected and abused in Georgia’s foster-care system described their tragic experiences Wednesday to a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

The Senate’s Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., launched a bipartisan investigation eight months ago into the treatment of foster children in the United States. The probe included a review of audits conducted by the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS).

Among its findings was a previously undisclosed internal audit this year that revealed DFCS failed in 84% of cases brought to the agency’s attention to address risks and safety concerns.

“What we have learned is happening to children in the state’s care and in the care of state agencies across the country is heartbreaking,” Ossoff said. “Instead of safety, too many children have experienced neglect, abuse, apathy, humiliation.”

Rachel Aldridge of Georgia told the subcommittee about the death of her two-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, after DFCS had placed her in the care of her father’s live-in girlfriend against Aldridge’s wishes. She suspected the girlfriend of using methamphetamine and believed she was dangerous.

Brooklyn subsequently died of blunt trauma to the head, and the girlfriend was convicted of murder.

“The system designed to protect children failed Brooklyn at every level,” Aldridge said. “Brooklyn would still be alive today if anyone at DFCS had been willing to listen to me, her mother.”

Mon’a Houston of Savannah testified about the five years she spent in foster care, which included 18 placements, only two of which were in foster homes. She said she was overmedicated because DFCS caseworkers believed she was a behavior problem, put in restraints, and placed in isolation three times.

“I felt alone,” she said. “I was overmedicated to the point of feeling overtired and sluggish. It hurt to walk.”

Two expert witnesses told the subcommittee the failures at DFCS are not the fault of individual caseworkers but rather are systemic.

“We don’t give case managers the tools they need and don’t listen enough to children and their families,” said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law.

“I have witnessed a system that fails on a daily basis to protect the wellbeing, health, and safety of children and instead violates their civil and human rights,” added Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia law school.

“DFCS’ overarching structure, internal policies, and administrative barriers obstruct {caseworkers’} good work, and when that happens, our clients experience extreme harm.”

Ossoff said the subcommittee’s investigation remains ongoing.

“It is imperative that this work spur the long-overdue reform necessary both at the state level and in federal policy to protect America’s most vulnerable children,” he said.