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Family Connection looks at child abuse, foster family support, substance abuse prevention during annual meeting
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Dawson County Family Connection recently held its annual meeting to discuss the areas it will focus on in 2020, which include child abuse and neglect, substance abuse prevention and foster family support and recruitment.

Board members gathered at Rock Creek Park on Jan. 23 to hear updates from local agencies and brainstorm plans of action they would like to see Family Connection implement in 2020.

“I will say that in Dawson County, the community is doing a great job of reporting abuse and neglect,” said Sarah Swann, Supervisor of Department of Family and Child Services (DFACS).

Swann was invited as a guest speaker and leader of a roundtable discussion on child abuse and neglect within Dawson County in order to brainstorm ways to reach the community about the issue.

According to Swann, the number of reports in 2019 nearly doubled from years prior. From August to Dec. 31, Swann reported that 168 child abuse and neglect cases were reported to DFACS, with 67 being screened out and the rest being assigned as an investigation or family support case.

“Most of them are neglect cases,” Swann said. “That’s our highest percentage and beyond that is physical abuse and then child endangerment and one sexual exploitation case.”

Substance abuse isn’t broken down into its own category in DFACS reports, Swann said, however substance abuse falls under the neglect category.

With more people aware of the signs of child abuse and neglect, Swann has seen positive correlations in the community in regards to foster care and reuniting families who have worked to overcome

“We have half the kids in foster care this year at this time than we did the year prior which is amazing. I think that that shows the fact that our reports have doubled and less kids are coming in that that kind of correlates that we are being more aware in the community in what truly is going on,” Swann said. “Hopefully that number shows that we’re able to prevent and help on the front end and prevent the kids from coming into foster care and staying in foster care.”

Swann also reported that Dawson County ranked the highest in its region in 2018 for reunification of families.

“We did have the most reunification which is excellent and that means that our families are getting that community support that they need to sustain their family,” Swann said. “Over the last year I feel really proud of what our community has done for our kids and our families, for any kid in an abuse and neglect situation.”

Although positive trends show the Dawson County community is more aware of what occurs in regards to child abuse and neglect, DFACS Resource Developer Blake Boyer says her agency still needs families that are willing to become foster homes.

“As far as what we need, we actually right now we need a little bit of everything,” Boyer said. “I get a lot of Dawson County couples that come to me wanting to adopt zero to five and I have to turn a lot of them away because we don’t have children zero to five available for adoption, especially if you want a no risk situation and you want two children or one child. We just don’t get those situations very often.”

According to Boyer, who approved foster homes in Dawson, Lumpkin and White counties, there are only 13 approved foster families in Dawson County. Seven of those homes are regular fosters that take in children temporarily. Two homes are kinship care homes where the approved families are only approved to take care of their relative child or children. The rest of the approved fosters are a mix of families looking to adopt or adopt legal risk homes waiting to be matched with children.

“We need foster families,” Boyer said. “We’ve had several infants come into care and I haven’t even had a Dawson County family that would take an infant just because of their family dynamic or the placements they already have they can’t manage an infant.”

Boyer said there is a tremendous need for families looking to adopt or foster sibling groups of three or more, as well as teenagers.

“People think they have to be foster parents full time, all the time. They always have to have placements in their home as long as they’re approved. That’s not true either. I give people breaks.”

There is also a need for respite homes in Dawson County, Boyer continued, which are homes foster children go to for a night or two before being placed with a foster family.

“A lot of situations are when we have teenagers that are being discharged from the hospital or maybe they just need a place to go for one or two nights before they go to their group home placement or something like that, and it’s just most cost effective and less traumatic for them to go stay with a family for a night than to be in a hotel.”

Jessi Emmett, Director of Accountability Court in Hall and Dawson counties, also addressed the board to provide updates on the four accountability courts in Dawson County and how her agency is working in conjunction with Family Connection and DFACS.

“Those parents, maybe not necessarily criminal cases but they’re involved with DFACS because of substance use – our goal is to help get them into treatment so they work on those issues and then are reunified with their children,” Emmett said.

According to Emmett, there are approximately 100 participants in the accountability courts in Dawson County. All four programs include group and individual therapy sessions, drug testing and requires participants to either work or volunteer in the community.

“We try to open up the avenues that we can for these individuals and our recidivism rates for folks coming in that complete our program and then are rearrested for those types of offenses are much lower. It’s below 20% for our program which is much lower than the national standard. I think that those recidivism rates for folks that are arrested but don’t receive any type of treatment is above 50% so the treatment works,” Emmett said. “Our whole mission is to reduce recidivism rates which is a direct cost savings to the county. These folks are not in jail. We’re not paying for them to be in jail. They are working. They are paying taxes. They are being productive citizens.”

Emmett says her agency ties into Family Connection’s substance abuse prevention measures by helping participants get clean and reunite with their families and reducing the stigma associated with substance abuse and mental health disorders.

According to Emmett, the average ages of people who start abusing substances are between 10 and 13 years old, with primarily alcohol and marijuana usage. Into adulthood, most of the substance abuse Emmett sees in the accountability courts is methamphetamine and opioids.

“We have to be involved in the criminal justice system to end up where we are, but we’re trying to make such a push for the prevention and to reduce the stigma of having an addiction, having a substance use disorder, having a mental health disorder,” Emmett said.

Throughout 2020, Family Connection will be revisiting the suggestions and feedback received by local agencies at its annual meeting to plan its programs to address these community concerns.