Things Are Moving
Foster care is in crisis, GSU is wrestling with a problem property, and the YSL case finally has a jury.
Over the last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff has been holding a series of hearings about the failures of Georgia’s foster care system. At the Georgia State University school of law Monday, three juvenile court judges offered a shocking accusation of the Department of Family and Children’s Services.
Carolyn Altman, a juvenile court judge in Paulding County, testified, “I attended a meeting in August this year, with about 30 other judges and DFCS leadership. DFCS 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. As judges we do not lock up children, especially special-needs children, because we cannot find a place for them.”
Another witness, Nhan-Ai Simms, a juvenile court judge in Gwinnett County, corroborated Altman’s testimony.
State law under 15-11-503 explicitly states that children should not be detained except under exceptional circumstances. “A child shall not be detained ... due to the lack of a more appropriate facility,"
When DFACS representatives in a meeting in August with judges were told this law, a DFACS lawyer replied "we can change that,” Altman said.
This was the sharpest part of some heavy testimony, as the judges described a bureaucratic culture of ass-covering where optics and foster care statistics eclipse the welfare of children.
Simms described a case in which DFACS abrogated its responsibility as a parent repeatedly overdosed on fentanyl, eventually fatally, rather than take an autistic child out of the home.
"A culture that prioritizes metrics over safety,” Simms said, “an increasing gap in service provision ... an inability to answer the most basic questions, such as "where did DFACS place the child?”
Ossoff began hearing testimony last week in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee. “This is an investigation about children — the most vulnerable children in our nation,” he said. “Orphaned children. Children who have faced the most extreme forms of abuse and neglect imaginable. Children who have been abandoned. Children who rely upon state agencies and Federal policy, which oversees those state agencies, as their last hope for safety.”
Testimony last week revealed a previously undisclosed 2023 audit that found DFCS only initiates investigations to assess and address the risks and safety concerns in about 13 percent of cases. In 84 percent of reviewed cases, DFCS failed to “make concerted efforts to assess and address risk and safety concerns to the child(ren) in their own homes or in foster care.”
Broce sent a response to me about the hearings last night, penned by a private law firm. The full statement is here.
“In a recent meeting with juvenile judges, at their invitation, Commissioner Broce discussed the lack of appropriate dispositional options, therapeutic interventions, step-down care, and safe placements for young adults with serious mental and behavioral health challenges. At this meeting, the participants also talked through recent legislation, opportunities to propose more changes to state law, and ways to better collaborate. Some judges in attendance spoke about the extreme difficulty balancing the child’s treatment needs, the family’s safety concerns, and overall safety for the community. Often, solutions are tough to find. The discussion included how additional time and resources might be necessary to best serve the family, especially through enhanced coordination between state agencies. [Monday]’s testimony on this point was lacking critically important context and accuracy. Commissioner Broce did not encourage judges to violate state law, and it has never been DFCS policy to punish a child with complex needs through detention. She and the participating judges all shared ideas on how to tackle these challenges in a more united front, and the Commissioner asked participants to be involved in legislative efforts to further improve Georgia’s child welfare system. To DFCS’s knowledge, yesterday’s witnesses never raised any concerns about the content of this meeting with the Commissioner or with the legislature, despite opportunities to do so. Ultimately, the courts and DFCS are in this fight together, and must stay focused on productive efforts to improve Georgia’s child welfare system.”
There’s a general consensus, I think, that DFACS isn’t functioning well for children right now, and I noticed some gingerness in criticism of the department because of the enormity of the challenges. No small part of the problem has been a critical shortage of foster care parents, particularly for older children who are perceived as “difficult” to manage.
Emma Hetherington, clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic, testified last week in Washington D.C. She was also at the hearing Monday. And the focus on the behavior of children misses the point.
“Children are not in foster care because of their behavior,” she said. “They've been abused or neglected their entire lives. But unfortunately, the child welfare system often sees them as the problem,” she said. In every case she sees she finds “credible evidence of child abuse, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, medical neglect, educational neglect, you name it.”
And in each case, DFACS had been involved, but “there was just sort of an unexplained delay in that child being brought into foster care … but there are lots of cases where we see kids who should be in care or should get protection in some way, shape or form. But they don't, because they're blamed because they're victims.”
Despite Jon Ossoff’s appearance on Monday, Georgia State University is having a bad week.
Sunday morning around 5:30 a.m., two men began an argument in front of an increasingly-notorious RaceTrac on Piedmont Road near campus. The argument ended in gunfire. Four people were shot. Two are Georgia State students. Then, yesterday around 1:30 p.m., a man was shot dead while sitting on a bench outside of the GSU stop on MARTA. Transit police arrested 22-year-old Paul Mitchell and charged him with the murder.
I’ve noticed an increase in chatter about crime and homelessness on the GSU campus over the last couple of months, even before a horrible, no good, very bad week. Most of that conversation has been about student interaction with homelessness and street harassment. Violence barely raises an eyebrow.
“The conversation is dead,” said Summer Clark, student body president and a 21-year-old senior from Fort Lauderdale studying hotel management. “I mean, everybody's like, ‘Oh, well, I'm sorry this happened. We're frustrated.’ But it's happened so often, that we are unfortunately very numb to the situation. So, when things tragically happen on campus, it's kind of just like ouch, and then you scratch it, or you wipe it off, and you keep going because it happens kind of often. And nothing is actually being done from a wider perspective.”
Indeed, when campus administrators convened a listening session and a town hall on Monday to lay out their approach to public safety, the most common question they fielded wasn’t about a mass shooting across from student housing, but about what the school would do about homeless people on campus.
“GSU as a whole is not incredibly unsafe. There are things that are in the system and about the city of Atlanta that are unsafe,” said Raymond Tran, a 20-year-old junior from Atlanta studying journalism. Tran is a staffer with the Georgia State Signal – which I must say is doing some excellent work right now – and regularly pulls police reports looking at crime.
“You might think living in a city that is more on the dangerous side that this is normal, but this is abnormal,” he said. Shootings are uncommon, but draw attention. “You’re going to have to expect some things about the city,” he said. “Everybody who graduates from this university will have a story.”
School leaders discussed increased patrols and a new lighting system with cameras along Auburn Avenue. Their PowerPoint presentation was bracketed by a frank conversation about how problematic the RaceTrac has become.
GSU Police Chief Anthony Coleman said that video showed a group of about 20 to 30 people were in the area around the RaceTrac, possibly filming a music video when the shooting broke out. That vibes with what students say about the store – that it’s become a social media staging area for people who don’t attend Georgia State.
Kai Cenat, a YouTuber with almost 5 million subscribers, has filmed videos at the RaceTrac, in one case getting two people to drag race. The students I talked with view the gas station as a dangerous nuisance that they can’t do much about.
“It doesn't serve any other purpose except for other outside people outside GSU,” said Naj Hughey, a 19-year-old junior from north Georgia who is studying music. “Like, just people that are not attending the university and just kind of party, you know, like, 25 and jobless.” Hughey said, laughing with a friend. “You know, show off your car, show off the money stacks that you got.”
The school doesn’t own the property and doesn’t control it. It is subject to Atlanta Police jurisdiction. The RaceTrac has an off-duty police officer inside. GSU and APD conducted a targeted detail a few weeks ago, Coleman said. “We just worked two days, two days just in that corridor. We made over 30 arrests, recovered a stolen vehicle and some stolen guns. So, we are actively patrolling that area. … When we see RaceTrac getting out of hand, where there's a lot of vehicles coming in there, we go in and tell management, ‘hey, we're shutting it down.’”
The subtext of his and others’ comments was that they would shut the RaceTrac down if they could. The city council had been considering new ordinances that would have made shutting down a nuisance property easier, but backed down after an outcry. Black business owners, including the rappers Killer Mike and 3Chainz, feared targeted enforcement. But GSU students would prefer to see it gone.
“Obviously, there's a component of the RaceTrac that seems attractive to all of these, like, low down influencers, people that just aren't doing anything with their lives and just want to come like harass college students,” said Allen Brooks, a 19-year-old junior studying music from middle Georgia. “So, it's like, if we make that corner less attractive, then people will take their parties elsewhere. And it's like at this point, you don't care where you go, just get off of our campus.”
Today is a decision day on the racketeering and murder case of Young Thug and the YSL street gang in Atlanta. Today, nine women and three men were seated in a court case that began jury selection in January, the longest jury selection in Georgia court history.
Judge Ural Glanville made it plain that attorneys must seat a jury, today. Under the Fulton County court’s speedy trial rules, a jury must be selected within two judicial terms of the start of the trial, or the indictment is voided and the district attorney’s office would have to start over from square one. The current judicial term expires Monday.
It’s actually happening.
A last-minute argument broke out between Young Thug’s lawyer Brian Steel and Glanville when a flight attendant in the jury pool couldn’t make it to court on time. The court sent notice to her on Monday to be present today … while she was working in another part of the country. There’s no way for her to get here before 3:30 p.m., court staff said.
The trial has whittled down an initial list of more than 2000 potential jurors to this last fifty people who are capable of sustaining themselves through a three-to-six month trial, and at least marginally willing to serve. Steel and other defense attorneys did not want her to be struck, but Glanville dropped her from the pool rather than delay further. Steel and Glanville argued over what reasonable notice for jurors to attend should be.
I would say I’m in court watching the YSL case, but I’m actually in a media room with six other journalists commiserating – and plotting – on re-acquiring access to the actual courtroom. We are still being denied entry while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the only media outlet allowed to sit in the room. Court staff have been arbitrary about who gets in and who doesn’t. Jewel Wicker, who writes for competing outlets, was allowed to sit in the courtroom last week, for example. More power to her, but this is a plain violation of both court rules, the Rule 22 judicial order in my pocket and the 1st Amendment.
Our motion to get access will be heard at 10 a.m. Tuesday.