Creating a State of Hope for Georgia’s At-Risk Children

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Any children in foster care is too many by Georgia Department of Family and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings’ judgment. Ideally, says Rawlings, all families would be healthy, nurturing, abuse-free environments for children and DFCS would not have to intervene.

Rawlings says DFCS has been working on ways to strengthen and empower families in order to help the children in them. Several years ago, in partnership with Georgia State University (Child Welfare Training Collaborative) and Georgia Family Connection, the State of Hope (SoH) initiative was launched.

“State of Hope,” says Rawlings, “is an initiative that seeks to encourage nonprofits, philanthropies, government, businesses and communities to collaborate closely to build local safety nets that will prevent conditions that attribute to disparities in education, threaten a family’s self-sufficiency and lead to child abuse and neglect.”

State of Hope “provides opportunities for seed funding and specialized technical assistance” to local entities and individuals with “big ideas” that address the aforementioned conditions. Maybe the most surprising thing about State of Hope is that people as young as 13 years old can submit ideas for consideration.

“Young people often come up with some of the best ideas,” says Rawlings.

State of Hope asks those who apply for seed funding to focus on four “opportunities for hope”: education, being/becoming trauma-informed, quality caregiving, and economic self-sufficiency

Those participating in the program are referred to as “sites.” There are 125 sites — State of Hope partners — throughout Georgia. Not all sites that participate receive funding.

In a recent conference call, several sites/groups shared some of the programs they have to help families.

♦ One group partners with the Lions Club to provide food boxes to needy families.

♦ A group provided a book a week over the summer to children it serves and also arranges for readers to read books to children.

♦ A group provided smoke detectors to its target audience after conducting a survey within the community to learn what needs people felt they had; the lives of one family were saved shortly after the installation of their smoke detector.

♦ One group said the most common request they receive is for bedding.

♦ Another group provides trauma training to local school personnel and plans to eventually offer the same to students and to the community at large.

♦ One group provides bags of back-to-school supplies.

♦ Leaders of one site took 50 children on a trip to the state capital that included a visit to the state supreme court.

Close to home, LIFT Youth Center, based in Ringgold participates in the State of Hope program.

LIFT co-founder and executive director Tina Pinkston was part of the recent State of Hope conference call in which other SoH sites shared what they were doing, something that is encouraged by SoH.

Pinkston said LIFT focuses on five areas represented by the acronym REACH: recreation, education, art, community (including community service), and help (connecting people with resources).

A student survey conducted by LIFT found that in Catoosa County:

♦ 30% of students have no close friends.

♦ 69% of students said they are not usually with other people; 7% said they are alone a lot.

♦ Only 21% of students feel they are deeply “known” by others and have no secrets.

♦ Only 30% of students feel they are fully reaching their own potential and being given a chance to excel.

LIFT addresses all of these issues with their community-centered programs that align well with the goals of State of Hope.

Rawlings says he wants to see a “Hope Ecosystem” in the state — a network of people and groups that help reduce the need to remove children from their homes and place them in state custody.

Rawlings is hopeful. He says the number of children in foster care is down, from 15,000 across the state last year to 12,400 now, and that 60% of children taken into foster care are reunified with their families within 12 months.

“Reunification is always our goal,” says Rawlings. “The more we have people and groups in local communities working to help families, the better chance we have of keeping children out of foster care or getting them back to their families.”

“We invite everyone who cares about their community, believes they can make a difference, and wants families and children to thrive to apply to join this movement,” says Dahlia Bell-Brown, deputy division director of Strategy, Innovation & Engagement at DFCS.

Tamara Wolk is a reporter for The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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