Then, in 1997, a 10-year-old foster child who'd stayed briefly with the Dickersons four years before accused their 18-year-old adopted son, a mentally retarded adult, of molestation.
The county Department of Family and Children Services took Wendy, by now almost 18, out of the Dickerson household and placed her in another foster home. Meanwhile, the agency closed the Dickerson home to foster children, citing the death of an infant from accidental choking and the alleged molestation. (The Dickersons' son was later cleared of the charges.) Wendy wound up at Georgia Baptist Children's Home in Griffin where she met another foster child, this one headed for the U.S. Army, and married him.
Wendy's relocation to the metro area "thrust [her] into an adult world before she was really ready for it," Linda says.
The Dickersons haven't seen her since July. And they're blaming DFCS.
Criticism of the agency is nothing new. Recent cases involving child abuse and even the death of some children have put DFCS in the public's crosshairs.
Renee Huie, of the state Department of Human Resources (the parent agency of DFCS), says, "In light of the tragedies, workers are more likely to petition to close foster homes than they were in the past."
But the tragedies have also left the agency reeling. Morale is suffering. On Dec. 27, Gary Redding became the Department of Human Resources' third commissioner in two years. Caught in the middle of conflicting policies and changing personnel are the agency's 13,000 foster children and 3,600 foster families. Some foster parents, like the Dickersons, are claiming that county DFCS offices are left in the lurch, seemingly unmonitored.
"Nobody's running the ship over there," says child advocate attorney Don Keenan. "There are no policies, or there are policies going in 50 different directions."
Tony Kriemborg, head of Glynn County DFCS, admits that the turmoil at the top of the agency has made the environment in county offices less stable.
"Obviously, it has an effect in that as different people come into the [state] office and they emphasize different policies, then we have to shift our emphasis to different policies," he says.
Three Glynn County families -- including the Dickersons -- have banded together to form Abused Foster Families of America, an organization that started with a website last month and has grown to include chatroom discussions between foster parents and some now-adult foster children.
"We just kept getting our letters back," says Joy Rooks, former foster mom and founder of the Georgia Chapter of AFFA. "We would complain about Glynn County DFCS to the governor and he would pass the letters to the state DFCS and they would forward it to Glynn County DFCS -- the office we were complaining about."
Rooks' complaints stemmed from the adoption of a bi-racial infant named Rebecca, who was born addicted to crack. Rooks, who is white, says she and her husband nursed Rebecca through her drug withdrawals. But when the couple applied to adopt Rebecca, local DFCS officials told Joy it would be inappropriate because, Rooks says, she "didn't know black hair care."
"They told me 'she looks black, so she's black,'" says Joy. The Rookses hired an attorney, who reminded Glynn County DFCS that federal law prohibits consideration of race in adoptions. DFCS agreed to the adoption.
The hair care issue was also raised in the case of Anne Samples, a white woman who, along with her husband, wanted to adopt a 2-year-old bi-racial girl named Candace. Samples says that local DFCS officials told her and her husband that they shouldn't adopt Candace because they didn't know enough about black hair care or black history.
The Samples lost their battle when Candace got into the medication she takes for attention deficit/hyperactive disorder and accidentally overdosed. Weeks later, DFCS conducted an investigation and cited the overdose incident as a reason for closing the Samples' home to more foster children.
"They put her in a black couple's foster home," says Anne. "And I understand why they may have done that, but this couple was almost 80 years old. And Candace was crying and asking us if she had done something bad when we took her over there."
The Samples and the Rookses filed complaints with the federal Office of Civil Rights. In a letter dated Oct. 25, 2000, the DHR acknowledged the office "found that in some instances, Glynn County DFCS improperly considered race in making placement determinations."
Kriemborg says his staff has since completed training related to federal laws governing interracial adoptions, but would not comment on specific cases.
AFFA's site and links to others like it, can be found at www.homestead.com/canchildadvocacy/sad.html.