Melissa Carter

Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and Emory University law faculty member, spoke at the University of Georgia on Wednesday.

Child welfare efforts and effects are strong and improving in Georgia, in contrast to the negative media coverage of system shortcomings, an expert on child advocacy said in a speech at the University of Georgia Wednesday.

“We have reason to celebrate,” said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and Emory University law faculty member. “There are things we do in Georgia that other states are envious of.”

In 2004, Georgia had its highest number of children in child welfare system at around 14,500, but this number was halved by 2012, Carter said, addressing a Chapel audience of about 50 people. The percentage of re-abuse within six months in those cases also went down from 9 to 4.1 percent over that same time period.

“This is one area where people are looking nationally to Georgia,” she said.

On March 13 Gov. Nathan Deal announced the creation of the Child Welfare Reform Council, whose job will be to examine the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and advise his office on whether legislative interventions or agency reforms are needed.

Nationwide, about 400,000 children are in foster care on any given day, with about 7,400 of them being in Georgia, or 1.85 percent, according to the Court Appointed Special Advocates. And at 159, the Athens-Oconee program accounted for 2.08 percent of the total children in DFCS custody served in Georgia between for the 2013 fiscal year, just below the program average of 166.

Specifically referring to the cases of Eric Forbes and Emani Moss, two children whose fall 2013 deaths received heavy media coverage, Carter said people can’t take these two negative outcomes as a representation of the entire system.

“We need to think about what they represent, because what they represent is not normative – that’s the good news,” she said. “The reason these children and their cases made the news is because they are sensational, they are outliers.”

Solely focusing on them would be ignoring all of the cases DFCS gets right, she said.

“You can’t use these cases to redefine the whole mission and experience of our child welfare system,” Carter said.

Child welfare services need to do things in an informed and strategic way and not be reactive because when people react from fear they sometimes don’t make good decisions. They might take in too many children that don’t need to be taken into welfare and overwhelm the system, she said.

The lecture was part of the EMBARK UGA program, a system of support on campus for students who experienced either foster care or homelessness, and was sponsored by the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and the School of Social Work.

“I think it’s encouraging hearing about some of the positive outcomes,” said Amber Gray, Walton County Supervisor of Foster Care and Adoptions for DFCS.

“I was surprised about a lot,” said Alexia Eady, a junior biological sciences major from Atlanta. “I didn’t know Georgia was up on their game.”