News & Views: News Feature
Wary of relatives, DFCS seeks foster parents
Published 08.19.00By Stephanie Ramage.The Division of Family and Children Services says fallout from the notorious Terrell Peterson case has increased the need for foster families, and Don Keenan, a child advocacy lawyer who pursued Peterson’s case, is crying foul. It used to be that the top priority for caseworkers with the Division of Family and Children Services was to keep families together — even if that meant leaving a child with a biological family who didn’t necessarily want the child around. The emphasis of the department, according to Liz Bryant, a placement resources manager for DFCS, has always been keeping families together. But DFCS caseworkers have changed their methods since the Peterson case drew negative national attention to Georgia’s foster care system.
“Case managers are less likely to leave children in families now without knowing specifically that they will be protected,” says Bryant. With fewer children placed with relatives, the same number of foster parents end up taking care of more and more kids — or they end up in shelters instead.
Trouble is, none of the people responsible for the long, slow, torture death of 6-year-old Terrell Peterson were his relatives. His “grandmother” was not his grandmother. His “aunt” was not his aunt. They were instead the grandmother and aunt of Terrell’s half-siblings, who had also been abandoned by his mother. Terrell’s father is unknown.
Terrell’s mother was a substance-abusing prostitute. She was estranged from her family in south Georgia. That’s where Terrell’s real grandmother was, along with a large clan of Terrell’s relatives, people whom Keenan describes as “gainfully-employed people who own their homes.” But they didn’t know about Terrell and when they did find out, it was because he had been killed.
“Common sense tells you that a child would be better cared for by blood relatives,” says Keenan. “There were at least nine blood relatives of Terrell’s in south Georgia who would have loved to have taken care of him. It’s sickening that they would use him as an excuse for not trying to find blood relatives.”
The importance of blood relatives is a topic that has dogged Keenan since 1988, when he brought suit against the state for the horrendous mishandling of the Kathy Jo Taylor case. Kathy Jo, 5, and her 3-year-old sister Jodie were left by their mother, who had problems similar to those that beset Terrell’s mother, in the care of their biological grandmother in a neighborhood where four of her uncles lived. The girls were well cared for, but their grandmother became worried about their legal status. She called DFCS because she thought it was her responsibility to tell the state that she was raising her daughter’s children. Shortly thereafter, the state removed the girls from their grandmother’s home. Six months and five foster homes later, Kathy Jo had been beaten into a coma by a foster parent. She remained on life support until she was 21 years old, when she died.
The Kathy Jo Taylor case resulted in a federal consent order which requires four things of Georgia’s DFCS : 1) Caseworkers have to exhaust every possibility of placing a child with a blood-relative. 2) Foster parents cannot use corporal punishment. 3) Caseworkers have to have monthly face-to-face meetings with foster children. 4) Upon charges of abuse being filed, DFCS workers have to appear in juvenile court with the child and justify the agency’s actions relative to the abuse. Those provisions were made law by the state legislature in 1989.
“I bet over at DFCS there’s not a friggin’ one of ’em who even remember who Kathy Jo Taylor was,” says Keenan. “Or the laws she gave her life for.”
But Bryant does remember. She’s been with DFCS for 20 years. She points out that the people who abused Terrell Peterson may not have been his relatives, but they were also not foster parents — as was the case with Kathy Jo Taylor. DFCS is looking for about a thousand good parents who can care for nearly 700 new arrivals in the DFCS system since December — when the department began more readily removing children from their abusive biological families.
In December 1999, there were 12,198 children in the care of the state. As of June there were 12,874. Some of the 670 new kids have been absorbed into existing foster homes. Some foster parents have as many as six children. Other new arrivals are living in DFCS shelters. Bryant admits that neither situation is ideal, but until people open their hearts and homes to these children, the state has few options.
“Our first responsibility is the safety of the child,” says Bryant.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent is encouraged to call 1-888-310-8260 to learn more about the application process.