Georgia Gov. Deal signs child welfare reform into law

ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed into law a bill aimed at streamlining Georgia's child welfare system to make it more efficient and effective.

The measure seeks to protect Georgia's children by encouraging communication and data-sharing among and within state agencies and foster parents.

Deal said the law codifies an executive order giving Bobby Cagle, director of the Department of Family and Children Services, a more direct line to the governor's office while also creating advisory boards for making rules and delivering services within the agency.

Cagle will report directly to Deal rather than to the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources.

"There is perhaps nothing more harmful to a child than an abusive father or neglectful mother. But if there was, it would be a community that watched in silent disapproval, doing nothing," Deal said before sitting down at a table to sign the legislation. "Georgia is doing something."

He noted that the 2016 General Assembly session produced a number of bills aimed at helping young people.

"We can call this legislative session the year of the child. In this session, the welfare and safety of our children was a priority," he added.

The reorganization called for by the bill, SB 138, creates district and state-level advisory boards to facilitate rulemaking and delivery of services within DFCS, he said.

He said it implements revisions in the state's child welfare system recommended by a commission he appointed last year.

The bill further grants foster parents and other care providers access to appropriate medical and educational records, helping them better serve the public.

One goal is to give caseworkers a more complete picture of a child's or family's interaction with the state, he said.

Also, the law re-establishes the Child Abuse Registry, which he said will handle cases with enough evidence to suggest that abuse may have occurred.

The law, he said, supplements other work toward child protection and includes funds for adding more than 450 DFCS caseworkers.

"When we help improve the safety, capabilities and morale of our caseworkers and foster parents, we directly elevate the services provided to our children in need," he said. "We can increase the effectiveness of state government as we protect our children."

Stephanie Blank, volunteer head of the Child Welfare Reform Council, said the organization will come up with recommendations before the 2016 General Assembly and focus on incentives to support families that take in foster children.

Also, she said, new efforts will be made to handle mental health news of Georgia's families and children.