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George on Georgia – Gov. Kemp fires DFCS director right before kids return to school

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George on Georgia – Gov. Kemp fires DFCS director right before kids return to school

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
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Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services is in trouble. Again. Not because of anything anyone did there, but because of what politicians are doing to the people there.

Tom Rawlings, the division director, got canned last week. The formal reason is garbage.

Rawlings got into an argument with a movie security guard. There’s video. I might give a damn if I myself hadn’t been on the receiving end of a cop downtown treating his off-duty gig like the main job. There’s nothing significantly wrong with his conduct on the video. The argument was a pretext for his removal, for reasons upon which we may only speculate.

What we know is that Kemp is replacing Rawlings with a Federalist society political hack with no experience in social services delivery, right before children start getting in front of teachers again.

About once every 10 years or so, some journalist like me comes around and blows up DFCS with a story of horrifying child abuse that leaves everyone in outrage wondering how the state could so drop the ball. (Relax: I’m coming for the state mental health folks right now. Wait your turn.) Because government is a bureaucracy, that immediately becomes a cascade of fault-finding and blame rolling downhill, punishing everyone who ever touched a case. Every Novocain-brain procedure in government can be attributed in part to some horror that required us to Do Something™ corrective immediately.

In turn, that leads to a culture of responsibility-avoidance where mistakes are buried and outcomes are less important than a slavish devotion to strict rules. It castrates innovation. It murders process improvement. And it drives talent to the doors, if not the windows.

So, of course, we replace a social worker with a lawyer.

On a good day, DFCS is understaffed. The stories are still horrifying. But over the last year there have been fewer of them. DFCS referrals fell by about half during the pandemic, and that’s because referrals for abuse from teachers fell to about zero. Bruises don’t show on a Zoom call.

The kids we all missed are going to pile into classrooms in September, carrying all the trauma no one outside their homes has seen. Those calls are going to start to rise again. And the person in charge isn’t going to know what the hell to do.

Rawlings, however, has known exactly what to do. He has been a tireless advocate for children’s welfare and an able administrator. Front-line staff respected his approach to the work, which has been data driven and rooted in a culture of justice. That stands in opposition to a culture of blame, in which DFCS main duty is to figure out who to put in jail. Perhaps that’s the actual problem.

Right now, about one in 50 students in Georgia have disappeared. It’s not a Pizzagate situation, but an increase in dropouts from high school, parents keeping their children out of kindergarten and others who have decided to homeschool without telling anyone.

You know who clued me in on the missing kids? Tom Rawlings.

Kemp is undoubtedly getting phone calls right now about this move, and a few others that have landed in the last couple of weeks. Other department heads have been fired, reassigned or retired, to be replaced by Kemp’s under qualified loyalists.

We deserve better than that, all politics aside. I don’t want to be writing about the children we failed in a column five years from now as we consider the problems yet to come.

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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