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Foster care central issue at local summit
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State officials visited Newton County Thursday to discuss challenges relating to juvenile welfare on the local level at the Justice for Children Summit "Challenge for Change."

The summit, which was presented by the Supreme Court of Georgia's Committee on Justice for Children, focused on the issues pertaining to court and agency work on child deprivation matters including foster care. The goal was to identify strengths and challenges in the county's system.

A variety of stakeholders attended the meeting including, agents from the Department of Family and Child Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and Kids Net as well as attorneys, court staff, educators and clergy. Juvenile court Judge Billy Waters was also joined by superior court judges John Ott, Samuel Ozburn and Horace Johnson.

clergy. Juvenile court Judge Billy Waters was also joined by superior court judges John Ott, Samuel Ozburn and Horace Johnson.

Waters kicked off the summit with a solemn summation of the condition of Georgia's juvenile system.

"The status quo is not in good shape in this state and has not been for a while," Waters said.

Beth Locker, Measures for Courts project director with the CJC, indicated Newton County was in better shape than most counties in the state, but improvements could always be made. Those in attendance were asked to throw out some areas of improvement that might be addressed in the coming years. The number one concern seemed to be keeping staff on par with growth in the county.

According to the suggestions given by the audience, the county also needs more transition support for children and more mentor programs. The county also is challenged in securing space and transportation for foster care children to visit with their birth parents.

In a personalized video directed at Newton County, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears stressed the importance of family over foster care.

"A recent federal review of the Georgia system showed fathers and parental family members were often overlooked for support," Sears said of children taken out of their homes. "This is a trend which should not continue."

According to statistics shown by Locker, Newton County has done a better job of keeping children with their parents than others in Georgia. As of Sept. 30, 2007, the county removed 1.3 children per 10,000 in population compared to the state average of three per 10,000 which places Newton County on the lower end of the state's counties. This translates into a yearly average of 20 children per 10,000 in foster care in Newton County compared to an average of 51 per 10,000 state wide.

To put that in perspective, a person living in Polk County, which has the highest average rate of removals, is 7.8 percent more likely to have his child removed by the state.

Locker said Newton County was also below the state average for length of time a removed child stays away from home. On Sept. 30, 2007, the average child in Newton County had been in the system for 11.2 months compare to the state average of 14.2 months.

Newton County does have an abnormally high rate of children in group homes or institutions, Locker said. As of Sept. 30, 2007, 18 percent of the children taken on by the state were living in group homes while 16 percent were living in institutions. Those numbers were well above the state averages of 9 percent in group homes and 9 percent in institutions.

"Group homes are expensive and can drain a lot of your resources," Locker said.

She suggested only the most troubled children live in group homes and the county may want to investigate more alternatives for those currently living in the homes.

For more statistical information regarding children in foster care in Newton County, please visit the Web site