Kids Matter: Status of the Division and Ongoing Initiatives

By Tom C. Rawlings

Editor’s note: Tom Rawlings was sworn in on February 18, 2019 as the Director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) after serving six months as interim director. Rawlings was the first full-time juvenile judge in the five-county Middle Judicial Circuit. He was named by two governors as director of the Office of the Child Advocate and is an international expert on child welfare.

After taking the helm at DFCS last fall, I’ve taken time to observe the agency’s inner workings and brainstormed several initiatives to help it run more effectively and efficiently. I’ve also put a lot of thought into the culture and image of the agency, both internally and externally. As Director, I’ve framed my vision to move the Division forward by creating an inviting culture and climate where my staff feel proud and purposeful in doing their work, and also feel valued and respected by their peers.

First and foremost in achieving that vision is creating a just culture. Just culture is where everyone’s voice is heard and staff in every level of the agency are treated respectfully. It’s a concept embraced by many hospitals where, instead of assigning blame, everyone seeks out mistakes as opportunities for learning and making systemic improvements. I want my staff, especially those on the frontlines, to feel empowered in their decision-making and not fearful of retribution. Our goal is always for decisions to be made in consideration of, “what is best for this child or family?” not, “will this get me in trouble with my boss?”

Some of the tactics we’re using to implement just culture are through one-on-one “suggestion box” conversations with frontline staff, which I plan to do with other levels of staff in the future. The feedback from those meetings has already proven valuable as it gives me a chance to meet face-to-face with our frontline “heroes” and hear from them about what I can do better to support them. I’ve also instructed my team to conduct frequent surveys of all levels of staff to get their feedback on policies and procedures. Surveys solicit feedback in an anonymous way, which some folks may be more comfortable with.

Another part of the agency’s culture is based on public perception, which unfortunately, isn’t always positive. I’m working with my teams to craft messages that tell the stories of our “heroes” – because I truly believe that’s what our frontline workers are. We seek to change the narrative about the work we do to make it comparable with that of other first responders – firefighters, police officers, EMTs. As we positively reinforce the good work being done at DFCS – reuniting families, keeping children safe in their own homes and preventing foster care entry, getting children to permanency through adoption, and helping families gain self- sufficiency – the more likely the public will be to support us and stand behind us during crises.

I’m also focused on building more community collaboratives around Georgia through our State of Hope initiative. This initiative is run through our Office of Strategy, Innovation and Partnerships, which also works to connect the agency with philanthropies, faith-based organizations, foundations and other potential partners. Our goal is to encourage communities around the state to launch their own local family-support programs as part of a larger network.

To learn more about the State of Hope initiative and how it’s bringing community thought leaders to the table, visit:
www.dfcs.ga.gov

The nuclear family is the best environment for children. When parents have challenges, their broader family offers the most effective support. But if cousins, grandparents and others in the broader family aren’t equipped, then the local community should be ready to help. The state is an imperfect substitute and a last resort of sorts. Our agency should do everything in its power to lessen the need for us to be called on. That’s why we sponsor the State of Hope project.

On those occasions when we do need to be involved with a family, some of our other recent initiatives are helping us prevent those children from having to be taken into state custody and experiencing the trauma of removal from home. Those initiatives have already helped us bring the number of children in foster care down to 13,500, below the peak and a reverse of the rapid increase in recent years.

The success of our prevention efforts are why I’m excited about a recent shift in federal policy toward other efforts to minimize the need for foster care. Passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 is the most significant federal child welfare legislation in decades. We are drafting Georgia’s plan for implementing this new law next fall. It will mean changes in funding for child caring institutions, and for the first time will provide federal funding for the provision of prevention services, like parenting classes, family counseling and respite care.

As hopeful as I am about this new focus on prevention, there will always be a need for foster parents. The Family First Act increases that need by limiting funding in group homes to certain specific needs, meaning Georgia’s demand for foster families is growing, even on top of the overall growth in the system.

If you or your organization are interested in working with or supporting the Division, there are a number of ways you can do so.

  • Become a Guardian ad Litem (learn more by searching “Guardian ad Litem” at: oca.georgia.gov)
  • Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (more information can be found at: www.gacasa.org/)
  • Volunteer with DFCS at its annual Secret Santa program (more information can be found at: dfcs.georgia.gov secret-santa-program)
  • Review the Department of Human Services’ volunteer opportunities guide for more ideas (dhs.georgia.gov volunteer-service-opportunities-guide)
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Tom Rawlings was sworn in on February 18, 2019 as the Director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) after serving six months as interim director. Rawlings was the first full-time juvenile judge in the five-county Middle Judicial Circuit. He was named by two governors as director of the Office of the Child Advocate and is an international expert on child welfare.