Two U.S. Senators – one Republican and one Democrat – wrote, “we have no higher obligation than to protect those who cannot protect themselves – especially children at risk of abuse or neglect.” 

State Rep. Eric Bell

Nothing more perfectly encapsulates a core role of government and it is encouraging to see bipartisan alignment around this responsibility. Unfortunately, in this context, Sens. Jon Ossoff, D-GA, and Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, were referring to the  Georgia’s failure to fulfill this obligation when they launched an official Senate inquiry into the alleged abuse and neglect of children in the foster care system here in Georgia, and into the foster care system nationally.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law, led by Senators Ossoff and Blackburn, recently held a hearing on the issue. Among other issues, investigation and the first hearing spotlighted a practice called “hoteling,” in which foster children are placed in budget hotels or offices. The temporary, isolated nature of hoteling not only adds to the trauma faced by vulnerable children, but it can also cause disruptions in school and treatment for behavioral or mental health conditions that are understandably prevalent among kids that have already endured so much hardship. 

During the hearing, we heard heart wrenching testimony from Mon’a Houston, a former foster youth in Georgia. 

She spoke of her time in the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) system in Georgia from 2017 to 2022, during which she had 18 placements. It was particularly disturbing to hear that of those placements, only two were in foster homes. The rest were other temporary locations, including hotels. As is too often the problem for youth caught up in Georgia’s “hoteling” system, her health, education and safety suffered as a result. She testified that she was overmedicated, lacked access to a therapist, and abused, and gave up on school, or whatever remnants of education remained for her without access to a classroom or tutor. 

While the state of Georgia has significantly reduced the number of foster children in hotels this year, the fact that it was ever so rampant requires a close look at the systems that allowed it to become commonplace. Furthermore, “hoteling” is just the tip of the iceberg of the health and safety failures within Georgia’s state-run foster care. 

Georgia parent Rachel Aldridge, who also shared her story at the hearing, led her testimony by stating, “I am only here today because of a broken system that led to the murder of my 2-year-old daughter, Brooklynn.” She went on to explain that she had sole, uncontested custody of her daughter, but when she was wrongfully arrested and detained in jail for a week, DFCS “placed her—against my wishes—in a home with plainly unsuitable caregivers, setting off a chain of events that led to her murder.” It’s a story made even more alarming by the fact that DFCS rejected Ms. Aldridge’s efforts to have Brooklyn stay with her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom are certified foster parents and who are a registered nurse and a federal law enforcement agent, respectively.  

These are just two of the all-too-many horrific examples of children and families being negatively impacted by foster care in Georgia – the very government structures put in place to help the most vulnerable.  

As a state, we should be striving to create an environment in which our at-risk youth have a fighting chance to live fulfilling lives and become contributing members of society. Yet, our state is falling flat on this fundamental goal and failing to oversee key parts of the foster care system. 

This includes deficiencies on the part of the DFCS and the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) to have adequate policies in place to ensure transparency, accountability and safety. It also includes a failure to hold accountable Amerigroup Community Care, Georgia’s dedicated insurer for foster care and the company central to the hoteling practice and health care shortcomings within foster care.  

It is clear that we have a complete and total collapse of responsibility on the part of Amerigroup. In fact, last August, DHS Commissioner Candice Broce sent an insightful letter to the Georgia Medicaid agency, laying out how Amerigroup isn’t being held accountable for failures in care, and that its foster care contract should not be renewed. 

At this point, the efforts of Ossoff, Blackburn, Broce and others at the center of power have created momentum for real accountability and positive change.  

As a brother to a foster sibling and a state representative committed to a district that has recently witnessed troubling incidents of abuse within a child advocacy organization, I urge Ossoff and his Senate colleagues to continue the investigation with the detail and attention it deserves. The well-being of our children hangs in the balance, demanding our unwavering attention and commitment to ensure their safety and protection. 

State Rep. Eric Bell, a Democrat, was elected in a 2023 special election representing House District 75 (south metro Atlanta/Clayton County). 

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