Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

GBI: No crime in abuse cases
DFACS staff sloppiness cited in child deaths
Jane O. Hansen and Ron Martz - Staff
Thursday, May 18, 2000

The GBI has concluded bad decisions and sloppy work by child protective services workers contributed to the children's deaths it investigated under orders from the governor.

It was those administrative failures, not crimes by caseworkers such as falsifying records, that led to the deaths of 10 of 13 children investigated in detail, say Gov. Roy Barnes and GBI Director Milton "Buddy" Nix.

"As we looked at those 13 cases in depth, we just did not see a pattern of criminal activity on the part of DFACS workers," Nix said in a recent interview. "Over and over again, each case that we looked at, we were finding administrative problems."

While workers for the state Division of Families and Children Services may escape criminal charges in 10 cases, three remain open. And in at least two, charges may be filed against parents or caretakers who otherwise might have escaped prosecution. The 13th case was that of Terrell Peterson. His grandmother and aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have already been charged in the 5-year-old's death.

To correct problems within DFACS, the GBI has recommended several reforms to the governor, including:

Better training, higher salaries and lower caseloads for caseworkers.

A computerized database to track abusive families who move. The GBI found DFACS' handwritten files "antiquated, unprofessional and most often illegible."

More money for foster homes and special programs for medically fragile babies and children.

Thorough background checks on anyone --- including relatives --- who might become substitute parents for a child.

The recommendations are similar to the findings of a task force appointed by Department of Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne to restructure the state's child welfare system. But Nix and Barnes defended the GBI's investigation as worthwhile.

"Any time you're dealing with missing children and child deaths, there's not anything more important that the government has responsibility for --- that our agency has responsibility for," Nix said.

Barnes launched the GBI investigation into 13 deaths Jan. 10 after newspaper reports that more than 800 Georgia children had died during a six-year period after someone had reported their families for abuse or neglect. Barnes directed the GBI to focus on possible criminal wrongdoing by DFACS workers, such as falsifying records, which is a felony.

But agents were also free to pursue other crimes that may have been committed by caretakers and never detected. Fifteen agents in Atlanta were assigned to the investigation, as well as other agents who worked in regional offices around the state.

Initially, Barnes said the 13 deaths were just the beginning, and agents said they expected to look into a lot more. A toll-free hotline also was established to obtain information from the public.

But Nix said he called off the investigation into further cases based on the task force's findings of a pattern of inefficiency rather than criminal wrongdoing and calls to the hotline that focused more on general complaints about DFACS. On March 21, Atlanta agents packed up their boxes and closed down their temporary office in Grant Park.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Hobbs said he met with the task force to discuss charging some caseworkers or supervisors with criminal negligence. But he said in 10 cases there was insufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.

"Just because a caseworker did not follow policy doesn't make the caseworker criminally negligent," Hobbs said.

But some say the investigation ended prematurely. The 13 cases were not a random sample nor was the group large enough to be considered representative, polling experts say. Although Barnes said the 13 had been picked because they were "the most egregious," neither he nor Nix is clear about how that determination was made or who made it.

"If you're handed a set of names and told, 'This is what you will look at,' then I don't know we get a true feel of what we're looking for," said Eva Patillo, a member of the GBI task force and an expert on children's deaths. "I think if it's objective, there has to be a random sample. And then you need to know how many cases you need to make a true sample of more than 800 cases. I know that 13 is not that number."

Patillo, director of the state Office of Child Fatality Review, said the task force recognized the sample was limited so agents pulled nearly all Fulton County DFACS records of children who had died the previous four years after coming to the agency's attention. But again, they found no crimes.

"Basically there were many violations of policy, but there was nothing the GBI could do about that," Patillo said.

Throughout the investigation, Patillo said, task force members were frustrated that no one seemed held accountable when a child died.

"It appears that nothing can really be done when people put children's lives in jeopardy," Patillo said. "All of us were concerned that some of these caseworkers who had so blatantly violated policy had been reassigned to work with children again. We collectively voiced our concern about that."

One of the two remaining open cases where charges may yet be filed involves Raymond Ellis of Sumter County, who was 16 when he died in 1997. Raymond had been the subject of numerous abuse and neglect allegations since he was a little boy, when he was hit by a car and left paralyzed and needing constant medical care. For the next 13 years, people called DFACS numerous times to say Raymond was being beaten or burned or left outside in a cold, wet wheelchair.

Two years before his death, his left leg had to be amputated after he was removed from the hospital against medical advice. Records show several doctors pleaded with DFACS to take the child from his home, saying he was slowly dying from medical neglect. He died from massive infection shortly after his second leg had to be amputated.

Now, as a result of the GBI investigation, his body has been exhumed and a prosecutor is considering bringing criminal charges against someone other than DFACS.

"That was a case that had it not been for the task force investigation, it would not have been looked at," Nix said.

Both Nix and Barnes say the investigation into children's deaths could expand if additional evidence is uncovered.

"It'll be an open-ended investigation until I'm satisfied there has been enough review of the matter, and that there's been enough procedures put in to correct what I think was the cause," Barnes said last week.

Nix said he is hopeful his agency's findings, along with recent public scrutiny of child abuse and child fatalities, will result in long-range change for children. In the meantime, he said. his agency will continue to investigate criminal wrongdoing when necessary.

"If there is a predicate to look at other cases, we'll definitely look at other cases," he said.

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