DeKalb County has the highest rate within metro Atlanta of children being placed into foster care – more than one a day – and that is something DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond is vowing to address.
A former state director for the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), Thurmond is leading by example in his push to generate funds for the DeKalb County DFCS.
His goal: to help the 904 DeKalb children currently in foster care, as well as those who enter the system in future.
Thurmond used his 2019 state of the county address on April 27 to raise money for DeKalb DFCS, and to highlight both the plight of DeKalb foster children and their potential to be great.
The 100-plus people who attended the CEO’s public state of the county breakfast at the Greenforest Community Baptist Church on Rainbow Drive in Decatur were encouraged to donate $20 to cover their meals, and all that money went to DeKalb DFCS.
As many in the audience reached for their checkbooks, generously doubling, and even tripling, the suggested amount, Thurmond thanked them.
“Because of you, come Christmas and come winter, a child who didn’t have a coat will have a coat," he said. "You will never know that child’s name, but in your heart you will know that you made a difference in their life.”
In all, more than $10,000 – including a $5,000 contribution from Jacobs Engineering – were donated to DeKalb DFCS that day.
Natalie Knight, southeast government relations director for Jacobs Engineering, presented the company’s check at the breakfast. She said the firm employs more than 600 people in metro Atlanta and is proud to support foster children in DeKalb.
“It’s important to our company that donations such as this will help provide a hopeful and healthy environment for children to learn and continue their education,” she said.
Latest statistics show 439 DeKalb children were placed into foster care between October 2017 and September 2018 – a rate of 24.7 per 10,000.
That’s an average of 36.6 per month, or more than one a day.
The rate of placements per 10,000 is lower in every other metro Atlanta county: Cobb (20.2); Clayton (19.5); Fulton (18.2); and Gwinnett (12.4). In the year through September 2018 DeKalb accounted for just over 25 percent of the 1704 children sent to foster care throughout the metro-Atlanta area.
Although foster is not technically a part of his job description as DeKalb CEO, Thurmond said he is making the issue a main focus for the duration of his time in office.
“It came to me that for the remainder of this term, and my reign as CEO, we’re going to put the children first," he said. "I will not stand by and allow the drug dealers and the pimps and the gang bangers to be the only ones in our community recruiting our children.”
Thurmond said the county’s achievements mean nothing unless its most vulnerable residents – the children – are being looked after, and that the difference he makes in the community should be measured not by those at the top, but those struggling at the bottom.
He illustrated the plight of most children placed into the foster system, stating many arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs and are forced to sleep in DFCS offices or in case worker’s cars for lack of an alternative.
“We would like to believe that every child has a loving home with all the materials they need in order to strive but it’s just not true,” he said.
Thurmond said the renewed push to help foster children was like the breaking of a curse in DeKalb County, and a change that would result in a positive difference.
He shared the stage with DeKalb County Police South Precinct Commander Maj. D.L. Jordan and Fox 5 anchor Alyse Eady, both of whom were foster children and credit much of their success to being given a loving home as a youth.
“Foster care provided me a great opportunity by putting me with someone who saw hope when I felt hopeless,” Maj. Jordan said.
Thurmond said Maj. Jordan and Eady are living proof that anything is possible, and that helping just one child has the potential to help thousands.
“We won’t save them all, but one will grow up to be a Maj. Jordan in the South Precinct, or on the six o’clock news speaking to millions," the CEO said. "If you just save one, he will grow up and be a great scientist that might cure measles or other communicable diseases.”
In a nod to the event theme of “DeKalb is rising,” Thurmond also shared a brief update on the county’s progress in regards to economic development, improved infrastructure, and a better quality of life for all residents.
Hundreds of millions is being spent improving DeKalb’s roads, water and sewer infrastructure, public safety resources, and recreational amenities, largely due to the one percent sales tax implemented in April 2018.
The DeKalb SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) will generate $636 million over its six-year lifespan, with $388 million controlled by the county government and $248 million divided between DeKalb’s 12 cities based on population.
The government is allocating its lion’s share to road repaving, while also upgrading facilities and equipment for police and fire, and improving public parks and recreation centers.
Thurmond reassured his audience that he has the most pressing concerns taken care of.
“We’re going to fix the doggone water and sewers, don’t you worry, I got this,” he said. “I understand the importance of having a sewer system that works because I grew up in a house that didn’t have a bathroom in it, so I have a unique perspective.”
Thurmond has the support of the county's seven commissioners, represented at the breakfast by District 5 Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson.
She said DeKalb was plagued by trash, potholes, water issues, and constant negative headline news before Thurmond took office in January 2017.
“Our CEO has truly been a driving force behind this new chapter that we have begun to write in the pages of history,” Davis Johnson said. “He is a visionary who heard the call to serve when DeKalb needed him, and who saw DeKalb for its potential, and not for its problems.”