Child advocate: New federal review blasts DFCS

ATLANTA - An upcoming federal review will show that Georgia's child protection agency is leaving children in unsafe homes and under-reporting the abuse and neglect occurring as a result, the state's child advocate said Tuesday.

Dee Simms said preliminary findings from an examination by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of 65 cases in Fulton, Floyd and Walton counties reveal the same flaws in the system she unearthed in an audit of Fulton's child welfare office released in March.

"The concerns raised in the review cry out for immediate attention," Simms said during a news conference at the Capitol. "I'm here to call for immediate and specific reforms."

Simms' news conference marks the latest episode in what has become a strained relationship between the child advocate, the state Division of Family and Children Services and Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In 2003, the governor's first year in office, he reappointed Simms to a second three-year term as child advocate, a position that had been created by former Gov. Roy Barnes.

But following the release of her critical audit of the Fulton County DFCS office, Perdue instead asked Simms to consider taking over the Fulton agency.

The audit accused Fulton DFCS of leaving abused and neglected children in homes without adequate follow-up and blamed the problem on a huge backlog of cases caused by a high turnover of caseworkers.

Simms responded to the governor's offer by saying she preferred to remain in her present job.

However, Perdue has formed a committee to conduct a search for a new child advocate.

Simms said the preliminary version of the federal review criticizes DFCS for failing to open new investigations when incidents of child abuse or neglect are reported involving homes where previous incidents have occurred.

As a result, she said, the agency is under-reporting the number of incidents, making it appear that fewer children are being harmed.

"The data doesn't reflect the reality," she said.

Simms said the feds also faulted DFCS' refusal to get involved in allegations of child-on-child sexual abuse. She said the agency's policy is to refer such reports to law enforcement.

"They're missing an opportunity to evaluate the perpetrating child," she said. "The federal review team was aghast at that happening."

A DFCS official said the federal review was based on data from the 2005 federal fiscal year, before the agency made improvements to reduce turnover at the Fulton office.

"The issues in Fulton are things we are aware of and are dealing with," said Isabel Blanco, deputy director for DFCS over field management. "We know the place certainly feels more stable."

Simms said the preliminary findings were presented last Friday to DFCS officials and representatives of children's advocacy groups.

She said a member of the governor's staff asked her not to reveal the information to the news media, but she decided to come forward anyway.

"The people of this state need to know what is lacking in the protection of our children," Simms said. "You can't change the child welfare system if you're not honest about the problems that exist."

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley confirmed that Simms was asked not to talk about the meeting. But he said the same admonition went to everyone else in the room.

"Everybody who was involved in the preliminary review hearing was asked to wait until the (Department of Human Resources, DFCS' parent agency) has had a chance to review the preliminary report and respond, so that a final report can be issued with all sides represented," Brantley said.

The governor's spokesman also accused Simms of being hungry for attention.

"She seems to be more concerned with headlines and publicity than waiting for a full story to develop," Brantley said.

But Simms noted that Tuesday's news conference was the first she has held in 61⁄2 years as child advocate.

"This is not about me or my reappointment," she said.