When the Number of Bedrooms in a Home Keeps Parents From Getting Their Kids Back

Even after resolving other safety concerns, parents in Georgia can wait for months to be reunited with their children, often because of what advocates say are stringent requirements sought by the state’s Division of Family and Children Services.

When the Number of Bedrooms in a Home Keeps Parents From Getting Their Kids Back

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WABE. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

K. thought she was one step closer to regaining custody of her children when she secured her studio apartment.

It wasn’t much — just a large basement room in an outer-Atlanta suburb that she was able to rent through a friend. But it had a kitchen and living area, and she was able to arrange beds in different corners of the room for her two sons and daughter. “It was cozy,” she said.

She hoped this would be enough for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services to, at last, allow weekend visits with her kids — setting the stage for her to get them back permanently after two years in foster care.

But she learned in court, following her caseworker’s inspection of her apartment, that there was a problem: She didn’t have individual bedrooms for her kids. DFCS wouldn’t let them stay there unless she had at least one for her daughter and another for her sons, she said.

This didn’t make sense to her — she knew that there were families who lived long term in single hotel rooms without ever triggering child welfare investigations. In fact, DFCS itself has resorted to housing foster children in hotels when the agency can’t find other placements.

K., who is identified by her first initial because of her fear of retaliation from DFCS, had worked to fix every other aspect of her life since her kids were taken away. She completed a yearlong drug treatment program, testing clean continuously ever since. She also began work as a home health aide. And she was diligently making child support payments to the state.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” she said, her voice shaking as she stressed this point.

That was in 2019, and K. quickly turned her attention to improving her housing situation, seeing it as one more challenge for her to overcome.

She didn’t know at the time that it would be another four years, until 2023, when her family would be finally reunited. Her kids, by then teenagers, had been in foster care for almost six years.

Inadequate Housing Was Associated with Significantly Longer Foster Care Stays

In Georgia, children whose cases cited "inadequate housing" typically took three months longer to reunify with their families than those whose cases did not.

Only foster care cases in which children were reunified with their caretakers were included in this analysis. Source: ProPublica analysis of National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System records Credit: Agnel Philip/ProPublica

K.’s case is a striking example of the way parents’ housing instability can lengthen their children’s stay in foster care. In Georgia, WABE and ProPublica found, versions of her experience play out across the child welfare system.

An analysis of data reported to a federal repository of foster care and adoption cases between fiscal years 2018 and 2022 shows that, in Georgia, cases that included “inadequate housing” as a reason for removing a child typically took 11 months to reach reunification, three months longer than cases that did not. Foster care cases associated with inadequate housing took longer to resolve than cases involving allegations of physical or sexual abuse.

Interviews with more than a dozen attorneys, judges and advocates in Georgia’s child welfare system confirmed the delays that housing can cause. They described cases similar to K.’s, in which parents overcame issues like drug addiction and mental health struggles but still waited months to be reunited with their children because of their housing situation.

“These kids just sit in foster care,” said Melanie Dodson, a family law attorney based in Cleveland, Georgia, offering a typical example, “because mom and dad are working at Subway and can’t afford a four-bedroom house.”

While all agreed that a shortage of affordable units is a major obstacle, several attorneys and advocates said DFCS adds to the challenge for low-income parents by insisting their housing meet requirements that can be unattainable.

They said it’s often not enough for parents to provide shelter to get their kids back; DFCS may ask for a formal lease or for the home to be of a specific size. K.’s example, they said, is common: The agency often argues in court that parents must provide individual bedrooms for children of different ages and genders.

DFCS spokesperson Kylie Winton didn’t provide explanations for any of these requirements, which aren’t written down in any statewide policy. But she noted that the agency designs its recommendations for housing based on the needs of each family. Ultimately, she added, judges decide what conditions are appropriate for reuniting children with their parents.

But attorneys and advocates, who practice in counties throughout Georgia, said many judges are reluctant to return children to parents with housing that doesn’t win DFCS’ endorsement. They also said while the agency may not have a statewide policy, they've noticed a pattern of DFCS arguing for the same stringent housing requirements across many county courtrooms.

While stringent housing requirements aren’t unique to Georgia, experts say they can be especially difficult to meet in the state, given how little housing assistance is available to families through its child welfare system.

If your issue is housing, that’s a societal problem, not an individual failing, and we need to dig a little bit deeper to come up with a way and a solution to that problem that doesn’t scar children.

—Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan and an attorney representing parents and children

As WABE and ProPublica reported in January, DFCS invested only a tiny portion of its resources toward housing assistance in recent years despite citing “inadequate housing” among its reasons for removing children in roughly 20% of foster care cases. Child welfare agencies in several other states allocated significantly more to provide housing to families, including those working to reunite with their kids in foster care.

Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan and an attorney representing parents and children, said Georgia’s child welfare system should provide housing assistance to parents — or simply return their children. Prolonging a family’s separation for housing alone goes against federal and state guidelines, including Georgia’s, he argues, which emphasize that child welfare systems should return children as soon as possible.

“If your issue is housing, that’s a societal problem, not an individual failing,” Sankaran said, “and we need to dig a little bit deeper to come up with a way and a solution to that problem that doesn’t scar children.”

Attorneys and advocates told WABE and ProPublica that parents who are trying to reunite with their children in Georgia are often expected to meet housing requirements that go far beyond the conditions that would justify a child’s removal.

Heather Daly, an attorney who represents children and parents in child welfare cases, said she has often seen DFCS refuse to approve of housing that parents share with relatives. That’s a problem for many of her clients who come from rural areas and often live with family to cut costs.

Daly said DFCS may label a multigenerational home as unsafe because a grandparent has a 20-year-old criminal charge or because relatives refused to be fingerprinted for background checks. Any past history with DFCS, no matter the circumstances, can also lead the agency to discourage returning children to the household.

In court, Daly said, she tries — with little success — to point to other families who are able to share homes without DFCS getting involved or running background checks. “I mean, most of this generation is living with their parents right now,” she said. ”And this is nothing different.”

Several attorneys and advocates pointed to another obstacle to reunification: DFCS sometimes won’t accept housing unless parents can prove that they have a right to stay in it long term.

Colleen Puckett, whose children were formerly in foster care and who now helps others navigate the reunification process across the state, said sometimes parents can get around this if they’re able to draft leases with the relatives or friends they’re staying with. But that’s not possible to arrange with extended stay hotels and homeless shelters.

It’s also not uncommon for DFCS to request that parents secure housing with a lease of their own, attorneys and advocates told WABE and ProPublica. Even when parents manage to accomplish that, they may still have to maintain the housing for six months before they can reunite with their children.

The problem with these rules is that few families in the child welfare system can afford — or qualify for — housing that comes with the space and certainty DFCS is demanding, attorneys and advocates said.

Many parents face challenges similar to K.’s. Because of criminal charges from when she was using drugs, many landlords refused to rent to her. Even if they had accepted her record, they also required incomes that were three times the rent, far outside the scope of her $11-per-hour wage.

Having an open child welfare case only makes the housing situation more difficult for parents like K. because they’re often hit financially — and are thus less likely to be able to afford rent — when they have to miss work to complete the requirements of their case, such as attending court hearings, seeking therapy or making visitations with their kids. On top of that, many can’t receive assistance from social service organizations until they can get their kids back.

“It just delays reunification significantly,” Puckett said.

Peggy Walker, a judge who has presided over child welfare cases in Georgia courts for more than 25 years, acknowledged that housing requirements often are more stringent for parents in the child welfare system and explained that that’s because judges are trying to eliminate the risk of children reentering foster care.

“You have traumatized that child by removing them,” Walker said. “If you put them back too soon, you have to turn around and remove them again.”

Walker said this consideration could lead judges to deny housing situations that may be acceptable for parents who aren’t involved in the child welfare system — though she said the requirements should be specific to the case. If the relatives have a history of kicking the parents out, for instance, then she said she might not have approved that housing situation for returning the children. She said if the family is known to be supportive, however, she would consider returning children to their home.

Regarding families with criminal histories, Winton, DFCS spokesperson, said the agency evaluates each situation to determine whether prior charges present a risk to the child.

You have traumatized that child by removing them. If you put them back too soon, you have to turn around and remove them again.

—Judge Peggy Walker

But attorneys and advocates said too often DFCS officials and judges insist on parents providing an ideal environment for their children. Sankaran, the University of Michigan professor, said that shouldn’t be the bar parents have to meet in order to regain custody of their kids. “We’re never going to in any of our lives get to a place where there’s zero risk for any of us,” he said.

Instead, Sankaran said, the requirements should be based on what is safe enough.

In its manual, DFCS outlines housing conditions — including exposed wiring, raw sewage and rodent infestations — that pose a threat to children’s safety and may warrant their removal into foster care. Sankaran said those kinds of concerns should be used as the guide for defining the conditions for reunification.

The child welfare system isn’t supposed to wait years to find a permanent outcome for parents and their children. Federal and state laws call for DFCS to make “reasonable efforts” to reunite parents with their children — Georgia's code specifies “at the earliest possible time,” repeating the phrase in its code section three times.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a longtime Democratic lawmaker who has authored several legislative changes to the foster care system, said this should include connecting parents to housing once they have resolved other safety concerns. “If we are not able to provide a competent working parent with a place to live, I think that we’re failing in our obligation to reunite the family,” she said.

That obligation exists in part because the cost of delaying reunification can be significant, said Melissa Carter, who leads the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University and is a former director of Georgia’s Office of the Child Advocate.

The longer children are in foster care, the more likely they are to be bounced from home to home because of changes or conflicts with their foster placements. According to state data reported to the site Fostering Court Improvement for fiscal year 2023, 66% of children who were in Georgia’s foster care system for more than two years had been moved three or more times.

Carter said these disruptions can affect a child’s ability to trust and form attachments, stay connected to their siblings and keep up in school. “So it’s just this kind of compounded experience that comes from the destabilization and trauma that comes with removal,” she said.

This is why federal law requires states to pursue adoption, terminating the parent’s rights, if they haven’t met the requirements for reunification by 15 months — unless child welfare agencies can provide “compelling reasons” to keep the case open beyond that deadline.

K. was aware of that timeline from other parents in the child welfare system. As months and court dates passed and a pandemic unfolded, she said she was grateful that the judge continued to give her a chance. “By the grace of God, he kept giving me another six months,” she said. “But he knew the only thing holding me up was housing.”

When she was finally able to convince a property manager in rural Georgia to rent her a two-bedroom townhome, K. was full of excitement, writing on Facebook, “GOD IS SO GOOD, ON TIME, AND ABUNDANT!” She said the reunification with her children that followed was happy — at first.

It is so wonderful to look at them and see that they’re home.

—K.

But K. soon saw the consequences of the years her children spent in foster care.

She thought they would be glad to have their mom back. In reality, she said, they’re angry and resentful toward her. According to K., they tell her she abandoned them. They don’t believe she only needed housing for reunification. They tell her she was just using drugs the whole time.

“I didn’t abandon you,” she said she told them. “I was working to get you back.” But K. says her pleading is of no use.

She said her kids’ anger also comes out at school, leading to suspensions. The behavior has been severe enough that she had to let go of one of her jobs. DFCS did provide her with one month of rental assistance — but only after her children had already been home for months. But now K. is again struggling to make her rent.

As she tries to keep the home together, she’s weighed down by guilt from what her children went through.

The moments she’s able to appreciate her family’s reunification, after so much time apart, are often limited to the night, when her children are asleep. K. can’t help but watch them. “It is so wonderful to look at them and see that they’re home,” she said.

How We Analyzed the Effect Housing Has on Foster Care Stays

We analyzed data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System to determine whether a child removal citing “inadequate housing” was associated with longer foster care stays in Georgia.

The AFCARS data, obtained from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, required steps to clean and deduplicate before we could analyze it. We used unique identifiers for children called AFCARS IDs and dates when a child was last taken into foster care to remove duplicates. We then filtered the dataset to removals that occurred from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2022, corresponding to Georgia’s 2018 to 2022 fiscal years. We then grouped by removal reason and calculated the median time between removal and discharge for cases in which children were reunited with their caretakers. For this grouping, we counted cases citing the removal reason alone or in combination with other removal reasons. For a case in which two different removal reasons are cited, its reunification time was included in the calculation for each of the removal reasons.

To further examine this issue, we developed several statistical models to isolate the effect of the housing removal reason. We controlled for other removal reasons and the age of the child, including interactions those variables had with the housing removal reason. In every model we tested, housing was associated with longer foster care stays to a high level of statistical significance.

The data used in this story was obtained from NDACAN via Cornell University and used in accordance with a terms of use agreement license. The Administration on Children, Youth and Families; the Children’s Bureau; the original dataset collection personnel or funding source; NDACAN; Cornell University; and their agents or employees bear no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations presented here.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WABE. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WABE. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

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