Judges say Georgia's child welfare leader asked them to illegally detain children in juvenile jails
Two Georgia juvenile court judges on Monday told U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff that the head of the state's child welfare agency asked judges to violate state law by keeping some children inappropriately locked in juvenile detention centers.
The judges said during a hearing in Atlanta that Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce asked judges to order children with mental and behavioral problems to be detained by the Department of Juvenile Justice while the state's Division of Family and Children Services looked for a place to house them.
"Commissioner Broce said that DFCS was not set up to be caregivers for these children and she asked judges to consider detaining the children, locking them up in a juvenile detention center for a few days so that DFCS could maybe find a placement for them," said Paulding County Juvenile Judge Carolyn Altman, who said the request would violate state law. "As judges, we do not lock up children, especially special needs children, because we cannot find a place for them."
Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Nhan-Ai Sims also testified that Broce made the request in an August meeting.
Spokespersons for Broce and Gov. Brian Kemp didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The testimony calls into question what Broce has touted as one of her top goals, reducing the number of foster children held in hotels or state offices because the state has no other place to put them.
Last month, Broce told a state Senate committee that children in hotels had fallen to zero on Sept. 8 and had been hovering near zero in the weeks before that. At the beginning of the year, the number was 50 to 70 a night. Hoteling typically costs the state $1,500 per child per night, ties up social workers, and denies children a stable environment and needed treatment.
Sims warned pressure to meet that goal is causing DFCS to refuse to take "the most complex and heart-wrenching cases" into custody, leading to "a false sense of competence and the effectiveness of our system."
"What I've seen develop in my time on the bench is a culture of child protection by the numbers — cases triaged to boost statistics and then closed prematurely in misleading triumph," Sims testified.
The testimony from the judges came in the third event that Ossoff, a Democrat, has hosted in a week, saying an investigation by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Human Rights Subcommittee that he leads shows the Georgia agency is dysfunctional and failing to protect vulnerable children.
"Your testimony today has helped to shine a light on the urgency of reform and accountability in this system to protect the most vulnerable children in our state from serious threats to their lives, their physical and mental health, their safety and their future prospects," Ossoff told the judges.
In a hearing last week, Ossoff discussed findings of "systemic" breakdowns by DFCS in responding to allegations of physical and sexual abuse. The agency sharply disputed the findings. Ossoff also disclosed that an internal audit from earlier this year found DFCS failed to address risk and safety concerns in 84% of reviewed cases. On Friday, Ossoff discussed an analysis that found 1,790 children in state care were reported missing between 2018 and 2022. It's unclear how that number compares to other states.
It's not clear what Ossoff may propose to remedy the problems. He says the investigation is still gathering facts. He and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, started the inquiry in February after questions about breakdowns in Georgia's child welfare system, including a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ossoff will be up for reelection in 2026, and the Republican Kemp could challenge him. Questions about the child welfare system could be a campaign issue.
Kemp put Broce, his longtime aide, in charge of the sprawling Department of Human Services in 2021. The lawyer had previously been named director of the department's Division of Family and Children Services. It's unusual for one person to hold both jobs.
Broce pushed a law during Georgia's legislative session this year that made it harder for juvenile court judges to place a child into DFCS custody. During that push, Broce told lawmakers that some juvenile judges were improperly placing children in state custody. Broce also accused some parents of jettisoning difficult children into foster care.
Judges, though, said that the law doesn't solve children's problems.
"On the state level, I see our child-serving agencies creating legislation to circumvent the responsibilities and shifting blame onto other agencies when confronted with their own failures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children," Sims said.