When Families Need Housing, Georgia Will Pay for Foster Care Rather Than Provide Assistance

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by Stephannie Stokes, WABE; Data analysis by Agnel Philip, ProPublica

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Brittany Wise ran through the options in her head.

It was a sunny April morning in Cobb County, Georgia, a suburban area northwest of Atlanta. Wise was heading back to the cul-de-sac of budget motels where her family was staying after receiving an eviction notice from her landlord in January when the blue lights appeared in her Chevy Tahoe’s rearview mirror.

The police officer had stopped Wise for an expired tag. But when he looked up her name, he discovered a bench warrant for a traffic ticket she hadn’t paid. She remembers that the officer was kind and gave her a warning about her tag. For her warrant, however, he told her that she had to go to jail.

Wise’s mind went to her children. Six of them were there in the SUV. The other two were walking up to the motel parking lot. In all, they ranged in age from 4 to 18. Wise, a 35-year-old single mother, had to figure out where they all would go.

Wise didn’t have any other family members nearby. She knew she could leave her children in the care of her oldest daughter. But one has autism and another has severe behavioral issues, which would be too much to put on a teenager, she thought.

So Wise asked the officer to contact the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. She hoped that the agency could care for her children just for as long as she had to be in jail — which turned out to be three days.

When Wise got out of jail, however, DFCS didn’t return her children. The reason, according to court documents and the case plan the agency gave her, was that she lacked stable housing and income for her kids.

In recent years, child welfare advocates and policymakers across the country have been working to prevent situations like this, arguing that no parent should ever lose their children just because they can’t afford housing. A handful of states now have laws and policies prohibiting government agencies from taking children into foster care because of homelessness. Georgia has not adopted such a rule, but the state Court of Appeals has ruled a number of times that unstable housing and employment “in no way constitutes intentional or unintentional misconduct resulting in abuse or neglect” that would justify child removals.

But Wise’s experience illustrates how an inability to afford housing still stands between parents and their children in many child welfare cases in Georgia.

Between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, DFCS reported “inadequate housing” as the sole reason for removing a child in more than 700 cases, according to an analysis by WABE and ProPublica.

The analysis, using data from the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, which tracks child removal cases in each state, also shows that in thousands of additional cases — about 20% of Georgia’s nearly 31,000 child removals during the five-year period — DFCS reported housing as one of multiple reasons. Housing was the third most reported reason after substance use and neglect.

Wise’s case is not included in the analysis because it began in April 2023.

When Georgia removes children for housing — either as the sole reason or in conjunction with other issues — it becomes something that parents must fix in order to regain custody of their children. Child welfare advocates and attorneys say that’s a uniquely difficult barrier to overcome. When families are facing other issues, such as a parent’s drug addiction or untreated mental health condition, DFCS often steps in and provides remedial services. But the agency rarely provides families with housing assistance.

According to a review of agency spending records for the same five-year period, DFCS spent more than $450 million on programs that can be used to keep families together. But the agency directed only a tiny portion — less than half of 1% — of the money toward housing assistance.

DFCS’ spending on housing assistance is noticeably smaller than in some other states. Several child welfare agencies, even in states with smaller populations than Georgia, dedicate millions of dollars more each year toward housing assistance.

Child welfare advocates say it doesn’t make sense for DFCS to do so little to help families with housing, given that the agency can end up spending just as much or more after taking children into foster care.

DFCS spends a minimum of $830 to $980 a month to house a child in foster care, according to the state’s published daily rates for foster parents. That’s roughly equivalent to the monthly fair market rate to rent a one-bedroom apartment in most of Georgia outside of metro Atlanta, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s estimates.

The cost for foster care can be significantly higher if a child has complex mental health or behavioral needs, as some of Wise’s kids do. Under the state’s current rates, specialized foster care for a single child in an institution or group home can reach $6,390 a month.

Josh Gupta-Kagan, who directs the Family Defense Clinic at Columbia Law School, said it’s baffling that DFCS would not provide housing assistance instead of removing children. “Why do we allow kids to be separated from their parents who we won’t help with housing — only to place them with strangers who we will help with housing?” he asked.

DFCS spokesperson Kylie Winton said the agency does refer families to outside resources provided by local nonprofits or other state agencies, in addition to the small amount of assistance DFCS offers directly.

But according to Winton, more housing assistance would not change the outcome for many families. When the state takes children into foster care, she said, housing often is not the sole — or even primary — reason. Most of the time, she said, another issue is driving the intervention.

“If a family is chronically unhoused and a connection to a community resource doesn’t resolve it, we typically find that there is a root cause issue, such as untreated mental health concerns or substance abuse,” Winton said in an email.

Citing confidentiality laws, Winton declined to comment on Wise’s case, even after WABE and ProPublica provided a waiver, signed by Wise, giving permission to the agency to discuss it. In Wise’s case plan, however, it did not list any serious underlying issues, beyond unstable housing and income, that explained why the court didn’t return her children.

Wise couldn’t understand how housing could be a justification in any case — but especially hers. That’s because the day of the traffic stop was not the first time she called DFCS. Months earlier, while she was trying to stave off her family’s eviction, she had reached out to the agency for housing assistance to maintain their stability — with no success.

As she confronted the loss of her children, Wise sat, with a scrunched-up tissue in her hand, alongside the advocate she met through that process, Sarah Winograd, who works to help parents avoid the foster care system, and explained what took place.

“I cried, I yelled, I prayed, I screamed,” Wise said. “Like, how did we get here?”

As a single mother of a large family, Wise had faced financial challenges before. In North Carolina, where she’s from, she occasionally had to call assistance programs or relatives when she couldn’t work or when bills left her without enough money for food. Still, she always had the necessities covered for her close-knit family, according to her oldest daughter, Halle Mickel, who’s now 19. “She did that and more,” Mickel said.

As for their housing, Wise rarely had to worry because for several years she’d received a federal housing voucher through a North Carolina agency.

It was only when Wise left the state in 2021, to get away from an abusive relationship, that housing became a serious issue for her family. She didn’t realize how hard it would be for her to find a place that would accept a family the size of hers in Georgia. Her voucher program gave her a limited amount of time to locate housing in the new state, and she exceeded that, causing her to lose her long-term assistance.

When Wise finally did find a four-bedroom townhome in Cobb County, it wasn’t cheap.

Wise paid the $2,200 a month at first with rental assistance through a local nonprofit. When that ran out, she tried to manage the amount on her own. She received roughly $1,800 in disability payments for her daughter with autism and for Mickel, who had survived cancer as a teenager, and supplemented that by working at a fast food restaurant and selling home-baked desserts at car washes and barber shops. “I did the best I could,” she said.

But Wise couldn’t keep it up. The school suspended her daughter with autism and her son with behavioral issues multiple times, and Wise lost work to watch them. Her rent payments became out of reach.

When the eviction notice came in January, Wise had already contacted all of the assistance programs she could find. All of them told her they were out of funds. So she turned to her last resort. “I picked up the phone and called DFCS because I thought they would be a resource for my family,” she said.

To Wise’s surprise, DFCS responded by opening an investigation. A caseworker came to the apartment, looked in her fridge, interviewed her kids and took samples of Wise’s hair and urine for a drug test. Wise didn’t have her case files from DFCS at the time, but, according to texts from her caseworker that Wise shared with WABE and ProPublica, the agency didn’t find anything worth pursuing. “There’s no concerns on our end,” the caseworker wrote to Wise in February.

As for Wise’s need for housing assistance — the reason she called DFCS in the first place — the caseworker said there wasn’t much that she could offer. She texted Wise information about different nonprofits, along with the number for Winograd, who’s now co-founded a nonprofit called Together With Families. But as far as what DFCS could do, she was clear: “The issue is funding. DFCS isn’t provided with government funding to house families,” the caseworker told Wise in a text.

Only one of DFCS’ family preservation programs, called Prevention of Unnecessary Placement, describes an option to help families with their rent, utilities or mortgage. The analysis of agency spending records shows that DFCS spent just $278,000 on housing assistance under this program in 2022. No other state agency in Georgia offers housing assistance specifically to families in the child welfare system.

By contrast, child welfare agencies in several states have spent significantly more on programs aimed at preserving families whose children are at risk of being removed or who are having trouble getting reunited because of housing. In 2022, New Jersey, which has a population similar in size to Georgia’s, dedicated more than $17 million for its program. Connecticut, with less than half the population, spent close to $20 million. California, which has four times greater population than Georgia, allocated exponentially more: nearly $100 million.

The New Jersey Department of Children and Families effort has served around 1,000 families, according to Assistant Director of Housing Kerry-Anne Henry. The agency has seen 90% of the families in its program stay housed after two years, she said.

“If we are really taking our charge seriously, as a child and family serving system,” Henry said, “we have to be responsive to their needs.”

Some child welfare agencies have also partnered with their states’ housing agencies to provide federal vouchers to families in their systems. The Family Unification Program from HUD offers vouchers for this purpose. According to HUD’s data, Washington state, which has a population smaller than Georgia’s, has claimed around 2,000 vouchers. Ohio and neighboring North Carolina, which have populations similar in size to Georgia’s, have more than 900 each.

Georgia, on the other hand, has received 530. Only a handful of city and county housing authorities have claimed the vouchers — but Cobb County, where Wise lived, is not among them. DFCS has not worked with the state housing agency, called the Department of Community Affairs, to apply for the vouchers.

Philip Gilman, deputy commissioner for housing assistance and development, said in a statement that the department didn’t have staff capacity to handle these vouchers. For her part, Winton, the DFCS spokesperson, said the agency is reviewing the possibility of applying in the future.

Meanwhile, Winton said DFCS is working on a housing-focused effort of its own. As part of a pilot program in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, the state awarded a nonprofit $1 million to house 50 families over the course of the next year so parents can reunite with their children or remain with their children who may be at risk of entering foster care.

But child welfare advocates, like Ruth White of the Maryland-based National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, said DFCS shouldn’t be limiting housing assistance to a few dozen families. If the state is ever intervening because of housing, she said, the agency has a duty to help. “They should be serving every family that needs to be housed,” she said.

For Wise’s family, in the weeks leading up to the traffic stop in April, there were no other housing options. By the time she reached Winograd, Wise owed around $10,000 in rent and utility bills. The only plan Winograd could propose was for her organization to pay to relocate her family to Florida, where Wise’s grandmother lived — an arrangement DFCS accepted.

While Wise also agreed, she knew it couldn’t be a long-term solution. Her grandmother was in her 70s. Wise knew she couldn’t bring a family of nine into her home permanently.

Believing she could find a more sustainable solution on her own, Wise brought her family back to Cobb County a couple of weeks later. They paid daily for a hotel as she continued her search for housing assistance. She didn’t imagine that in another couple weeks she would have to call DFCS again — this time, because of a traffic stop — to get her kids.

Wise’s caseworker had told her that DFCS didn’t make housing assistance available to families, like hers, because that was not the agency’s job. “Technically,” the caseworker had texted her in March, “the DFCS agency is only responsible for the safety of children/housing children.”

Since the traffic stop that sent seven of Wise’s children to foster care, DFCS has paid for their housing. The cost of housing them has quickly exceeded the amount of her family’s overdue rent.

DFCS has been paying at least $6,200 a month. That estimate is based on the rates for foster parents set by the state and is the minimum possible amount required to cover seven children in their age range — not including any special subsidies for the two with additional behavioral needs.

The estimate doesn’t account for the administrative costs of paying case managers to visit the children in their foster homes, as they’re required to do in all cases. It also doesn’t cover the costs of transporters who take the children to and from court-ordered visitations, which could amount to hours of driving time.

While some of these expenses may be covered by federal funds, longtime parent attorney Amber Walden said she still has seen foster care costs add up to much more than the price of housing in many of the cases that she has handled over the years.

“How much money are we talking about with that — when you could just have them all in the same home with the parent?” Walden said.

As DFCS made these payments to foster care providers, the result has not only been that Wise was in a separate home from her children. They also have been in separate foster homes from one another.

Wise saw the effects of these disruptions on her children. One afternoon, as she was about to leave the county DFCS office after a meeting with staff, Wise learned her two sons were in the building. Although she was able to have an impromptu visit, that wasn’t the reason her sons were there — they had been fighting with their foster parents, Wise said the caseworker told her.

The caseworker brought the boys into the office while she figured out their next placement, Wise said. One was the son who already had behavioral issues. He had turned 9 in the month since he and her other children entered foster care. She had already told him that they’d have a celebration when they were all back home. As he played with toys in the DFCS office, she said he reminded her: “Mom, are we still gonna have my birthday? Are we still gonna get a cake?”

Wise hung her head and rubbed the tears in her eyes as she walked out of the office. “It just makes me sad because I didn’t mean for them to go and be tossed around,” she said, “to go through all of this.”

Wise said she later learned from her caseworker that her sons had to spend that night in the DFCS office because the agency still could not identify a new placement for them.

In recent years, DFCS has frequently resorted to placing children in need of specialized care in offices and hotels — at an average cost of $1,500 a night, according to January 2023 testimony to the state legislature by DFCS Director Candice Broce. The costs, totaling more than $77 million between 2018 and 2022, have sparked hearings at the state Capitol. But state legislators charged with reviewing Georgia’s system have not proposed new prevention funding for families, including for their housing.

The need is clear to people who have worked for the agency, like Nikita Raper, who resigned this past summer after two years with Cobb County DFCS.

Raper said so much of her job as a child abuse investigator was scrambling to find housing resources for families, who were sleeping in their cars, staying in homeless encampments or getting kicked out of their hotels. All the time spent on these cases distracted caseworkers, like her, from instances of actual abuse, she said.

“More funding for the housing cases would offer relief to families and take them off the radar of DFCS so that we could focus on the bigger cases,” she said.

When she was with DFCS, Raper could access the Prevention of Unnecessary Placement program funds only if she could demonstrate the family wouldn’t need help again. “It’s really difficult to show that,” she said.

According to WABE and ProPublica’s spending analysis, Cobb County did not approve this funding for housing even once in the fiscal years 2021 and 2022. Wise said she never even heard about the program from her caseworker.

Living on her own, Wise has struggled even more to secure housing and employment that would comply with the requirements of DFCS and the judge in her case. When she was in contact with the agency in January, her caseworker referred her to any resources that would provide her family with basic shelter. But once her children were in foster care and her case was before the court, DFCS and the judge wanted her to show housing and income that were “stable.”

“The court finds these children have lived in unstable living environments long enough,” the order from late April said.

But DFCS has no statewide definition of stable housing. The agency said that’s because the meaning depends on the details of each individual case. Attorneys who work on Georgia child welfare cases in half a dozen counties said DFCS regularly requests that parents maintain a lease for six months before returning their kids.

This standard shows up even in cases where housing wasn’t initially a driving factor, said Darice Good, who has represented parents in Georgia for 20 years. “They won’t send the children home if there’s not stable housing,” she said.

Wise tried to fight the court’s requirement in her case. Right after she got out of jail in mid-April, she managed to obtain a spot at a homeless shelter for families, along with her daughter, Mickel, and she believed DFCS had no reason to not return her children there.

“I have no history of drugs & alcohol abuse, endangerment, physical, mental or emotional abuse I have caused on my family,” Wise wrote in her notebook to prepare for a virtual call with DFCS at the beginning of May. “I kept us safe!”

But Wise’s effort didn’t get her very far. In the call, which she recorded and shared with WABE and ProPublica, the facilitator said it was the judge’s decision to keep her children in foster care. Wise pushed back, asserting that the judge was acting on DFCS’ recommendation. The two were soon talking over each other for several minutes until the facilitator hung up.

Throughout this time, Wise was also working to get permanent housing. Winograd could finally identify a nonprofit that could pay back the rent at Wise’s old townhome. Wise was even able to move back in — but only temporarily. Right when the nonprofit was supposed to cut the check, it told Wise that it was reversing its decision: Upon further review, an email said, she didn’t meet the criteria for the funding program — including the ability to show that she could maintain her rent after she was caught up.

So, in mid-summer, Wise stayed with Mickel, who managed to get housing through a program for young adults. Wise found jobs, but they only paid around $10 to $15 an hour, and a couple of times she had to call out as soon as she was hired in order to make court hearings and visitations with her kids. She also found herself so concerned about her children that it was hard to work.

“Who can really function or focus in a situation where everything around you is on fire?” Wise said.

Winograd, who volunteered as an advocate for foster children before she started her work preserving families, said this is common among parents who have to prove stability to the child welfare system. “People might think, ‘OK, now, they don’t have the responsibility of their children, they don’t have to worry about child care, they don’t have to worry about doctors’ appointments,’” she said.

In reality, Winograd said, many parents struggle even more. “The mental health piece becomes a huge issue for them to be able to go and get stable because they’re so worried about their child,” she said.

Wise has since located transitional housing in North Georgia. She has also found the support of another nonprofit, which has offered rental assistance to help her obtain housing and stabilize her family. But the nonprofit will provide the rental assistance only if the court first agrees to return her kids — and the court has not made such an agreement.

Meanwhile, Wise’s children have now spent nine months in foster care. She still finds herself trying to make sense of the reason.

How is it “that we had to endure all of this catastrophe and chaos and trial and trauma, just because I couldn’t pay a couple of months of rent?” she said.

How We Analyzed the Effect Housing Has on Children Being Placed in Foster Care

We analyzed data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System to examine the reasons Georgia’s child welfare agency reported for taking children into foster care.

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 counted the number of removals in which housing was reported, both alone and in combination with other removal reasons, and compared that to the total number of removals during the same period.

We chose not to compare the percentage of housing-related removals with other states because there are wide variations in how states report the reasons for taking children into foster care. In limiting the analysis to Georgia, our analysis was not affected by those differences.

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.

Image: Wirestock/Freepik