ATLANTA - The state office that oversees Georgia's foster care system consistently excuses serious and repeated rule violations that jeopardize children's health and safety, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In a report published Sunday, the newspaper found that fights, sexual assaults, abuse by foster parents, escapes and suicide attempts occur with regularity at many of Georgia's 336 private foster care agencies, according to a review of more than 1,500 state reports and investigations.
Georgia increasingly relies on private agencies to place children in foster homes and group homes and to oversee much of their care. Some 4,000 children - about half those in state care - live in privately owned facilities. A decade ago, private agencies cared for about 10 percent of Georgia's foster children.
But state oversight has not kept up with the rapid growth, the AJC investigation found.
In Fulton and DeKalb counties, half the children in foster care did not receive the required two visits a month from state workers in 2009, court-appointed monitors said in a recent report. The monitors said state officials inspected the operations of one-third as many private foster agencies last year as in 2008.
The fines for violations are often minor, the newspaper found.
Officials have issued more than 1,100 citations to 300 of the 336 private agencies since 2008. Most cases involved multiple violations of foster care rules, but the state imposed fines or other penalties in just 7 percent of those citations. The median fine was $500.
In one example, state records show a private agency inappropriately placed a 17-year-old who had engaged in incest and an 8-year-old who was autistic and mute with a history of being abused at the same foster home. The newspaper reported that the agency was ultimately punished with a $300 fine.
State officials say a delicate mix of persuasion combined with the threat of serious penalties is needed to regulate foster care agencies and ensure that children are not getting substandard care. They say it often takes a soft nudge to get the foster care providers back into compliance.
"It is not the goal to put people out of business," said Keith Bostick, director of the state Office of Residential Child Care. "We want to do as much as we can to try to keep kids safe. But it is a balancing act."
Foster care providers, meanwhile, complain that enforcement can be too focused on administrative requirements that don't directly affect how children are treated. Normer Adams of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children said the regulations are valid but can be "tedious."
"Most of the violations don't threaten the health or safety of a child," Adams said.
No one seems certain how to improve the system, but policy experts have divided into two camps.
Advocates of tougher enforcement of foster care rules say the state should play a more aggressive role in searching for relatives to care for children taken into protective custody and should more closely monitor the private agencies.
But others say less stringent oversight would help privately run foster agencies operate better. They say the foster homes could be regulated by social workers instead of inspectors and that an independent body not affiliated with the state Department of Human Services could oversee all foster care providers.