I sat in the Fulton County Juvenile Court audience on Saturday, November 20th , with my son and my husband, watching the joyful and moving ceremony of 23 families who were celebrating their adoptions on National Adoption Day . Afterward, I thought about my earlier conversation this past week remembering Fulton’s Terrell Peterson who suffered and died at the age of 5 when he should have been protected by our child welfare system and adopted by a loving family. These two events might seem like they are far apart but they are linked in my mind because November is also the 10 year anniversary of Terrell’s picture on the cover of Time Magazine with the title of “The Shame of Foster Care."
Terrell’s tragic case deeply affected many people. For my family, Terrell was the catalyst of working with Emory University School of Law to create the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic , for others it was the call to become foster parents , CASAs or mentors. Terrell sparked the Kenny A class action lawsuit and it was the background for Georgia’s first Child and Family Services Review.
Much has changed for the better in the past 10 years in our state’s child welfare system. Last week, Governor Perdue received a letter from the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) which praised our state for its improvement efforts on safety, permanency and well-being work. This letter is much different than the letter sent by ACF in 2006 fining our state $4.2 million for our failure to even work on promised improvements. Today, the child welfare caseloads are lower, safety measures show improvement, children move through the system more quickly and are less likely to come back into care, and fewer children are aging out of care without finding permanency. We didn’t know any of these measures 10 years ago. For the most part, our measuring started in 2000.
On December 2, 2010, Georgia DFCS will be released by ACF from the “Program Improvement Plan " having substantially complied with the plan and being able to prove it. This release also means that the state will not have to pay a pending 8.6 million dollar fine. This release from both the plan and the fine will receive little fanfare. In a way that is appropriate, because, while we are moving in the right direction, there is still so much to be done to improve the system charged to protect children in fragile families.
However, I am thankful for where we are today.
Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts. Michelle and Andy Barclay founded and endowed the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic in partnership with the Emory University School of Law.