The Office of the Child Advocate, a small statewide agency created to oversee child services, will return to Augusta later this year to determine whether improvements have been made in providing protection and foster care for children.
The new watchdog agency for Georgia's abused and neglected children conducted its first audit outside the metro Atlanta area this month - in Augusta.
The Office of the Child Advocate, formed three years ago, conducted a surprise audit of the Richmond County Department of Family and Children Services after reports in The Augusta Chronicle and calls from residents worried about the treatment of abused and neglected children.
"We have asked for a corrective action plan. I'll be back in touch with them ... probably later this year. The ball is in their park right now," said DeAlvah Simms, the state's child advocate.
The audit of the Richmond County DFCS was a small sampling of more than 400 cases - 12 from the foster care placement case files and the corresponding child protective services cases.
"Taken as a whole, our findings reveal mixed results and balance, with some very good casework, some average and some genuine cause for concern," Ms. Simms wrote to Carolyn Beard, the director of the Richmond County DFCS office.
"I think it was a fair report," Ms. Beard said. But she said the office will fare better next time because the agency is fully staffed with caseworkers, a few of whom were in training while the audit was taking place, Ms. Beard said.
The audit of the 12 cases revealed proof that reasonable efforts were made to provide children permanent homes, either with their parents or in adoptive homes. But the audit also found that the plans to accomplish these goals were either outdated or inadequate in half the cases. Other files with case plans lacked evidence that the required services are being provided - such as mental health services for a child with a history of suicide threats.
The Child Advocate staff was relieved to see that valid court orders were present for 11 of the 12 foster care files reviewed.
"This represents great progress and effort on the part of the department," Ms. Simms wrote.
"It looked better that we anticipated," said Allyson W. Anderson, the director of policy and evaluation at the Office of the Child Advocate.
While the audit focused on foster care services, the examination of the child protective services files for the same children revealed deficiencies:
Organization of files and proper documentation also was a major and common problem, according to the report.
It's not a minor, bureaucratic point, Ms. Anderson said, because if the paperwork is not in order and if documentation is missing, it can be impossible to determine what has been done or is still needed for the children.
Ms. Beard agreed that documentation is critical. Caseworkers have had additional training on documentation within the past six months, she said.
Other problems noted should improve because of the increase in trained caseworkers, Ms. Beard said.
Ms. Simms noted her staff has serious concerns that the average Richmond County caseworker handled more than 33 cases - nearly double the average of 17 cases recommended by the Child Welfare League of America.
The General Assembly passed the law creating the Office of the Child Advocate in 2000, after many negative reports in the wake of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson's death by starvation and physical abuse in Atlanta in January 1998 despite repeated calls to child protective services.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.