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

Saturday Talk: Legal system stonewalls as baby suffers
David J. Goo - Special
Saturday, June 10, 2000

When children are battered, bruised and murdered, in spite of our best efforts to prevent this, doing your job is not always enough.

I wrote a column in this space, published Feb. 19, about a 5-week-old child with a broken leg who was clearly the victim of abuse.

A DeKalb County detective thought there was inadequate evidence to prosecute and left a suspected abuser free. This was unacceptable to me, so I went to the police station to meet with his supervisor, who assured me I was being taken seriously. The supervisor called the Department of Family and Children Services to ensure the child was in the agency's custody.

Follow-up phone calls to a DFACS caseworker revealed the child was "safe" in the mother's custody, and the suspected abuser would have no contact with the child. I felt I had done enough. Was enough enough?

I had a nagging feeling it wasn't. Was the suspect still on the loose? In the ensuing weeks, I called the police supervisor to check on the case. I was told that although no warrant had been issued, the case was referred to the district attorney's office for review. As long as the child was in "safe" hands, the case often was put on the "back burner," he said.

I called the prosecutor and proceeded to play phone tag. I also followed up with DFACS, but the four to five phone calls I made regarding a subpoena to a custody hearing went unanswered.

The subpoena had no contact person, no telephone number, no caseworker or case file number on it. I wanted to be sure I was there at the right time and date. Receiving no return calls, I guessed they did not need my testimony, or that the case had been continued. Only after a final nasty call to a DFACS supervisor did I get a curt phone message from the caseworker that the case had been dismissed by a judge and custody was given to the mother.

I understand the judge stipulated that the alleged perpetrator would only be allowed "supervised visitation." I wondered how that stipulation was to be enforced. Now was enough enough?

Unfortunately for this child, now 4 months old, enough was clearly not enough. On May 13, a nurse at the Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital brought back an infant with a large swelling on the right side of the head.

The same person alleged to have broken the child's leg when he was 5 weeks old, held the lethargic, crying baby. The mother accompanied them. She said that she had removed the bumpers from around the crib and the baby hit his head against the bars.

A scan of the head revealed multiple skull fractures and other injuries. A neurosurgeon said the injuries appeared to be old and new, occurring over the past two to three months. While I had been trying to protect this baby, he had been the victim of numerous brain injuries.

The child was admitted to the intensive care unit. I prayed for him that night, in between the rushes of anger that overwhelmed me. He survived and is recovering.

The next day, I called the assistant district attorney who told me she never received the case. It lay on the detective's desk, awaiting medical records from DFACS.

The detective apologized for misinforming me that the case had been forwarded to the district attorney. It was an honest mistake and no one "dropped the ball," he said.

The police and prosecutor assure me everything is now being done to prosecute the suspect. The baby is safe in the custody of a kind angel willing to be a foster parent. Maybe now enough is enough for this poor child.

David J. Goo is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University and a physician at the Hughes Spalding emergency room.

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