Imagine five slips of paper.
Write one of the most important things in your life on each of those papers. Family, home, friends, your pets, your church. …
Now, imagine those things ripped away from you, suddenly, without a lot of explanation, or at least not one you understand.
How would that feel?
That is how children taken from their families and put into foster care often feel.
“I do that exercise with my CASA volunteers,” explained Sue Lagermann, director of Floyd County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates. “I have them write the things they love most on those papers, then I walk around the room and take two from some or all five from others. I don’t say why, I just do it.”
CASA is a nonprofit program that trains volunteers to advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected children who are under the jurisdiction of the Floyd County Juvenile Court.
As she walks around the room, Lagermann said she often gets upset reactions from people.
“One time a lady got very mad, I could hear her asking ‘Why did she take all of mine?’” Lagermann said.
When Lagermann explains the point of the lesson, she said she sees people catch on quickly.
“I think sometimes it is hard to imagine what a child taken away from their family goes through,” she said. “Even in the worst of situations — no matter how abusive the situation — those children love their parents. That is the home they’ve known.”
Currently, Floyd County has 403 children in foster care.
To compound the problem of leaving their families, 69 percent of those children are living outside of the county because Floyd County does not have enough foster homes to house its children.
“We have children all over the state,” said Lagermann. “It is hard on everyone. If they were able to stay here, they would at least be at their school, with their teachers, their friends, they could visit their church. It means they are dropped into a situation that is completely foreign to them.”
A lot of children placed under the care of the Division of Family and Children Services are also often taken away from siblings, Lagermann added.
“For some of those children, their siblings are their parents,” she said. “In cases of neglect, many times we find that an older brother or sister was the stable force in that child’s life.”
The distance puts a burden on DFCS caseworkers and CASA volunteers as well.
“It makes it harder to visit the children, counsel them,” Lagermann said. “It makes family visits harder as well.”
One of DFCS workers’ main goals is to try to reunite the family, according to Floyd County DFCS Director Lindsey Howerton.
“It’s all about family support and preservation,” Howerton said. “We are now serving 350 families, trying to help parents and get them back with their children and keep them together.”
Reasons behind the removal of a child are not always simple, she added.
According to statistics from Georgia Child Welfare Measures, in Floyd County between October 2014 and September 2015, 116 children were removed for neglect, 85 because the parents were abusing drugs, 91 for inadequate housing, 34 for abandonment, 28 for abuse and 22 because their parents were in jail.
“I would say that 80 to 85 percent of our removals are initially because of neglect,” Howerton said. “However, that is not always the end of the story, because sometimes once we remove the child and earn their trust, we find out about other issues such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse.”
The reasons behind these problems stem from what Howerton calls a “triangle.”
“The triangle of issues we have in this community is a high poverty rate, high substance abuse rate and a high rate of mental health issues,” she said. “A lot of times it is not just one issue.”
The problems tend to cycle around as well, spreading across generations.
“One of my first cases, she was 15 years old, in YDC,” said Lagermann. “She’d been put in there because she performed a sexual act on a school bus. I had no idea what to say to her, but I visited her.”
Lagermann said she and the young woman sat together and ate the girl’s favorite candy, Butterfingers. After she was released, Lagermann found out that she’d had a baby at 16.
“By then, she’d moved to Macon,” said Lagermann. “I visited her and took the baby to put it up for adoption for her because she knew she couldn’t take care of it.”
Years later, Lagermann met up with her again, this time in court with three young children and pregnant. The young woman was having her parental rights terminated. “I begged them to give me this case,” Lagermann said. “I tried to help her, but her rights were terminated. Then I met her again, with two more children, same situation.”
Then, last summer, Lagermann received a call from her. “She’s pregnant again, but she is going to church,” said Lagermann. “She is living in Atlanta with her mom who is out of jail now.”
Lagermann said the young woman’s mother had been placed in jail for pimping her daughter out, but the two had managed to make peace.
“I just hope she is OK,” said Lagermann. “She sounded good, like she had made a change. She always just wanted someone to love her.”