(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: 2.6.2000]
Ex-caseworker speaks out for children
'I said...they're killing children'
By Jane Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
Kimberly Smith / AJC photo
It took years to wear down Yvonne Elliotte's resolve to help children in Georgia. But the state DFACS worker finally had to leave. She now works for a child abuse hotline in Albany, N.Y.
She remembers their faces and the little details of their lives: the joy of a child she taught to play Itsy Bitsy Spider, the hug of a 13-year-old she rescued from the sexual fondling of her mother's boyfriend.
She remembers why she got into this business, and why, ultimately, she had to leave.
Like a lot of Georgia's child protective services workers, Elliotte loved the kids she tried to serve. She connected with them and their parents. She thought she could help them, save them really, from a life of violence and neglect.
But she was wrong.
One recent day, Elliotte sat curled on the white couch of her home in upstate New York. Elliotte has freckles, faint freckles, the kind that get darker in the sun. Her eyes are big and brown, and in the dead of winter, she was dressed in black shorts.
At 44, Elliotte is the divorced mother of two girls, dating someone and back home in Albany, where she is surrounded by relatives and living in the little village of Menands.
"I am so happy to be back in New York and out of the South," she said, talking rapidly, her hands in constant motion.
It was her upbringing on the gritty streets of Brooklyn that molded her, and she has maintained a classic Brooklyn accent.
She was reared by her mother, who was single. She went to a high school where bodyguards protected the principal, a riot squad patrolled the cafeteria and police manned a station inside the massive school on Jamaica Avenue where Elliotte eventually graduated.
She almost didn't.
Like others, she became ensnared in the urban web of drugs, crime and domestic violence. "I had all these influences from my neighborhood," she said.
But like most kids who make it because some adult cared, Elliotte had Shirley Click, a guidance counselor who kept sneakers at school to run down the street after wayward students like Elliotte.
"Shirley saved my life," Elliotte said. "She's the person who gave me the incentive to help people because she helped me." She would later dedicate her college thesis to the woman.
Love for city prompts move
For 10 years after graduating from college, Elliotte was a juvenile counselor and investigator for the Albany police department, where she investigated crimes committed against or by children.
"At that time I wanted to save every child," she said. "I just felt everybody could be helped with a lot of love, attention and guidance."
While visiting friends in Atlanta, she fell in love with the city and moved here.
She became a sworn, certified police officer and for two years worked for the Emory University campus police. It would be invaluable training for her. But in 1991, she quit. "It wasn't me," she said.
Elliotte never intended to become a social worker. When she was a child, the New York social services agency made surprise visits to her mother's home to make sure the family was legitimately collecting welfare. "I hated social services," she said. "We'd be hiding cupcakes. We'd be unplugging the TV. These are people who didn't let you have anything."
But she'd read of a job opening in Fulton County with child protective services and figured as long as it didn't involve the welfare benefits unit, she might like it.
"I loved it," she said. "Because I was helping people again. I was helping kids."
In the first six months, she worked with a family others had written off as hopeless. The mother was on drugs, the father unemployed, there had been numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse of the children.
But through persistence, Elliotte helped them turn their lives around. "I got so close to them," she said. She still hears occasionally from one of the children, now grown.
For her work on the case, the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services gave her a special commendation, even though she was technically on probation.
Transfer is beginning of end
In May 1996, Elliotte's career took a dramatic turn when she volunteered to transfer to the Southeast office near Turner Field. The woman she replaced told her she'd pray for her.
"They're going to swallow you up," Elliotte recalls her saying.
Within two months, she wrote her first memo to Ralph Mitchell, Fulton DFACS director, complaining about case records. Family assessments, case plans and case histories were missing or outdated or incomprehensible, Elliotte wrote.
"In brief, the general condition of the caseload/records was very poor, yet seemed to be acceptable by management," she wrote. She says she never did get a response.
Although she had an initial caseload of 35 families (twice the nationally recommended caseload), at first she managed. She knew how to gain the trust of families who resented a social worker's intrusion, as she once had.
She knew as a trained police officer how to get information by cultivating relationships with the local liquor store owner ("because he knows all the alcoholics and addicts"), the mailman ("because he brings the welfare checks"), the landlord ("because he knows who hasn't paid the rent in three months").
Janice Roots, another former Fulton child protective services worker, says Elliotte was well-respected by her peers. "She was a very experienced worker," Roots said. "She knew what she was doing. She knew what questions to ask. She knew when to ask for help."
As a former cop, Elliotte also knew how to protect herself. Caseworkers, who aren't permitted to carry weapons, often walk into volatile situations with parents who might lose their children to the state.
Despite her toughness and street smarts, Elliotte couldn't protect herself from everything.
The month she transferred to the Southeast office, a 4-month-old baby died. "She was the most beautiful baby I'd ever seen," Elliotte said.
The baby's mother was a crack addict, well known to the department, which had received numerous complaints the woman was neglecting her children. When a new report alleged that the mother's boyfriend was beating her 4-year-old daughter, Elliotte was dispatched to the home.
When Elliotte visited the family's home, she saw no evidence of a problem.
Drug-addicted parents are a significant threat to children. But the state, until last month, did not require caseworkers to obtain random drug screens from any substance-abusing parent who's been reported for child maltreatment. Until then, whether a parent was abusing drugs was left to a caseworker's hunch.
"I guess I just caught her on a day she wasn't smoking crack," she said of the mother. Elliotte found the baby playful and happy. The children seemed fine.
Three days later the baby was dead. An autopsy showed the 4-month-old had died from an overdose of cocaine. Her mother was sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
"I felt so bad," Elliotte said. "I'd just seen this baby. I was holding the baby."
A 'gorgeous baby' dies
Three months into her new assignment, Elliotte wrote another letter to Fulton DFACS administration, complaining that "records were in disastrous conditions, caseloads are chronic, long-term, high-risk for abuse/neglect." She attached copies of the two employee commendations she had by then received, to dispel any notion that she was just another disgruntled employee.
"It is sad to think that children in Fulton County, abused and neglected by their caretakers, are also being neglected by the agency," Elliotte wrote.
Minnie Laster was another baby who came into Elliotte's life. At 4 months, Minnie was a charmer who would coo and smile, Elliotte said. "She had this beautiful pecan tan, and these locks of curly hair," Elliotte said. "She was a gorgeous, gorgeous baby. And she was a good baby. "
Minnie, too, had been born with cocaine in her bloodstream.
Three years later, Elliotte grows silent as she thinks about that case. "Oh God," Elliotte said in a near-whisper. "This was the first case where I learned the agency had made a horrible mistake that I felt caused this child to die."
Elliotte was assigned the case in the summer of 1996, two months after a caller had alleged that one of Minnie's siblings was being sexually molested at home. Yet, until Elliotte got the case, the file had just sat there.
"It must have gotten lost," Elliotte said. "It happens all the time."
When Minnie was born with a positive drug screen --- after six years' worth of reports that the mother was on drugs and neglecting her seven other children --- Elliotte got a court order to remove all eight children from the home.
The children were initially split among relatives, with Minnie going with an aunt. "I was thrilled," Elliotte said of the aunt, who had a large house and had visited Minnie daily in the hospital. "She was so impressive to me."
But her confidence shattered the day she learned the aunt also had a history with child protective services in another county, where records show people had alleged she was neglecting her children. "I just freaked," said Elliotte, who also had not known that by then all of Minnie's sisters and brothers also were living with the aunt.
In her five years in protective services, her supervisors had always checked the backgrounds of prospective caretakers, according to Elliotte. She assumed her supervisors in the Southeast office would do the same. But they had not.
Whether poor management or a bureaucratic snafu, the oversight would be costly.
Elliotte immediately requested a "staffing" --- a meeting with her supervisors to gain permission to pick up the children and move them. In the Southeast office, a caseworker couldn't remove a child without a staffing.
"I said we need to remove these kids," Elliotte said. "There's an open case on the aunt. Now she has eight kids plus hers. It's overcrowded."
During the next three weeks, Elliotte said she asked her supervisors numerous times when she could remove the children. In the meantime, she visited regularly. "I was so worried all these kids were there," she said.
On Sept. 6, she called the aunt's home and reached the 13-year-old. "She was crying and screaming, 'The baby! The baby! Ms. Elliotte, the baby's dead!' "
"I couldn't believe it," Elliotte said. "I just couldn't believe it."
The autopsy showed that Minnie had died from positional asphyxia. Her aunt had gone to work and the adult watching the children had left to get her own child from day care. Minnie, who'd been put to sleep on an adult bed, apparently slipped from the side of the bed and became wedged between the wall and the mattress, smothering to death.
The death was ruled an accident, but Elliotte doesn't see it that way.
"I put some of the blame on myself," she said. "But that doesn't change the fact that that department could have prevented the death of Minnie Laster."
A later internal investigation by the state office found that Fulton DFACS had "provided good services to the family" and done "aggressive proactive work with the family." But it noted that while Minnie's death was accidental, the agency "becomes vulnerable to charges that her placement into the overcrowded --- and apparently undersupervised --- home did not remove her from risk."
A few weeks later, Elliotte again wrote to Mitchell. By then, her caseload had grown to 41.
"Besides feeling abused as an employee, I mostly fear for the lives of these children," she wrote. "There is no way I will be able to meet the state mandates and perform good practice standards, if my caseload is overwhelming to this degree." Again, she says she got no response.
Mitchell does not remember hearing from Elliotte. But he said last week that he remembers there were problems with that particular office.
"We found there was a disparity in the number of cases different staff were carrying," said Mitchell, who is on medical leave. "We corrected that immediately."
But Mitchell said that Fulton caseworkers have always carried a heavy load. In 1996, he said his agency was serving about 5,000 children and caseworkers were carrying an average of 37 to 42 cases. "That's far too many," he said. "It's been a difficult situation to manage when you don't have the resources to do it."
In November 1996, two more toddlers on Elliotte's caseload died in a fire at a dilapidated rooming house whose owner had been prosecuted for failing to meet housing codes.
Brothers Franklin Brown, 2, and Frank Robinson, 1, had been stuffing paper into a space heater, authorities said.
Before their deaths, Elliotte had been working with the family, which had a history with DFACS of severe neglect. She had just concluded that the children's home was unsafe and was working toward their removal when the family disappeared.
"I felt, 'I gotta find these kids. I gotta find these kids,' " she said.
Elliotte was close to tracking them down when the children died in the fire. "That's why I felt so bad," she said. "I really feel these kids could be alive today. I could have found them but I didn't have the time."
A one-day notice
For the first time, Elliotte sought psychological counseling. Her marriage began to suffer.
By January, after nearly six years with the agency, her caseload was up to 54 cases. Another caseworker quit because of working conditions and large caseloads.
"In short I continue to be concerned about the welfare of all the children on my caseload," she wrote in yet another memo to Mitchell.
On April 30, 1997, she wrote him one final time.
Her caseload had reached 61 families. "I, Yvonne Elliotte, case manager at the southeast area office, submit my resignation effective May 1, 1997," she wrote. "Most importantly, my resignation is related to the many families and children who continue to suffer due to the continuing poor leadership of this office. Due to an overwhelming number of cases on my caseload, it has become humanly impossible to meet all of the needs of these families. Many times children are left or even placed at risk, and I am convinced that effective supervision and management would prevent such occurrences."
She praised a number of individuals in the department, then signed the letter, "Respectfully and regretfully submitted."
The former cop, the seasoned New Yorker who once believed she could save all children, had reached the conclusion she could not.
"I finally said, I can't work for this agency because they're killing children," she said.
It did not lessen her anguish at what she left behind. "When I resigned, I had two cases that I hadn't gotten to for six weeks," she said. "Do you know what can happen to a child in six weeks, when they're being beaten, when there's no food?" she said. "I had to leave, even knowing that there are children out there still being abused."
Unemployed, the financial loss further strained her marriage, and the couple divorced. In late 1998, Elliotte returned to her home state of New York.
She left Georgia behind, but not the profession. Today, Elliotte works as a child protective specialist for the state of New York, answering a hotline that screens reports of suspected abuse and neglect from all over the state. She loves the job. She knows what she's doing, and she's still helping kids.
Elliotte has tried to erase the memories, but they haunt her. She remembers the details.
"Some days I sit here and I wonder about those children," she said. "You know, you pray for these kids. What else are you going to do?"
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