(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12.05.99]
State law mandates that doctors, teachers and others report child abuse. But they can't find out what the state does about it.
By Jane Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
A little girl named Jeannie touched the hearts of Georgia legislators a decade ago.
They never saw her, never met her, but her elementary school teacher from Blairsville in northeast Georgia came to the Gold Dome and told them about her. She told them for a year that she had tried to save the child, a 9-year-old who came to school smelly and dirty and fearful of the men her mother brought into their home. For a year, the teacher said, she had called and badgered the local DFACS office demanding to know what they were doing to protect this little girl and her 6-year-old sister.
For a year, child welfare workers had told the teacher who saw the child almost daily that they could tell her nothing due to conf identiality laws.
Then one day the teacher learned that Jeannie had been killed by one of her mother's friends. He had raped her, stabbed her and thrown her in the river while her younger sister watched, the teacher told the hushed room of lawmakers.
In response to stories like this, the Georgia Legislature relaxed confidentiality laws to allow people like Jeannie's teacher, who are mandated by law to report suspected child maltreatment, to learn whether the agency confirmed abuse. The idea was to encourage more people to get involved and give them a tool to hold the child welfare agency more accountable.
Ten years later, the records of dead children show that many different kinds of people -- from doctors to teachers to police to grandparents -- do indeed call child welfare workers when they fear for the safety of a child. But the records also show that their professional judgment often is ignored.
Octavious Sims, whose family had a long history with the Fulton County DFACS, is one example. From 1990 to 1996, people called 11 times to notify the agency that Octavious or his siblings were not being cared for. Of the 11 complaints, caseworkers said only two could be verified. But according to a later internal review of the case, even then, only minimal steps were taken to ensure the child's safety.
Among those calling to register their concerns were a hospital social worker, law enforcement officers, a juvenile court worker, a school administrator, a mental health worker, friends, relatives and even his mother, Tanya Christian.
Since Christian had her first child at 16, the young mom had had five more, nearly one a year, all the while battling mental illness. Records show that in addition to hearing voices, she had a history of suicidal and homicidal tendencies, with a number of stays at Georgia Regional Hospital.
One week two law enforcement agencies called the Fulton child welfare agency. An Atlanta police officer told caseworkers he'd found the mother and her young children wandering the streets all night. They were so cold and hungry, he said, he'd fed them himself. Despite his firsthand knowlege, and that of a Fulton County warrant officer who called with a similar story, child welfare workers dismissed both reports after visiting the home and finding the children "clean and well-dressed."
"It is unacceptable to dismiss reports made by mandated reporters without more investigation," an internal review by the state office found. The review found that nearly all 11 complaints had been poorly handled, with inadequate investigations and a failure to check the history of reports before responding to a new one. The report also criticized the Fulton agency for not gathering information on the mother's mental illness and treatment.
Even if the police officer had asked child welfare workers what they were doing to help the children, they could only legally have told him that they did not verify what he knew to be true.
Virgil Costley, former juvenile court judge in Newton County, says the law didn't go far enough.
"Teachers and others are their friends, not their enemies," Costley said. "There's no reason why a mandated reporter shouldn't be able to call back and find out what's going on."
He said if more people had the information, more people could help children before it is too late. "Instead it's like saying, 'Don't worry about this. We just want your information and we don't ever want to see you again,'" Costley said.
Octavious was just learning to walk in 1996 when his mother and father killed him. Three days shy of his first birthday, his mother brought him to Midtown Medical Center. He'd been dead for hours. She said the children had been jumping on the bed a week earlier when Octavious hit his head. But the autopsy showed the child had been starved, immersed in boiling water and killed by blows to his face and head.
Last year, on her 24th birthday, Christian and Ricky Lee Sims pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
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