(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]

The state set up a system to track alleged abusers when they moved away. But that didn't save Nathan Dickson.

By Jane Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Nathan Dickson's family was the kind a tracking system was made for. 

He was less than a year old when the first report came in to the Cherokee County DFACS. The caller said the baby's stepfather was delivering him to a child care center dirty, unbathed and so poorly dressed for the freezing temperatures that his feet were blue. Twice, Nathan was hospitalized with pneumonia. But caseworkers worked with the family and, within the month, were confident Nathan's parents had learned to care for the child. 

Over time the reports grew more ominous, with callers alleging that Brian Anderson, Nathan's stepfather, treated the child cruelly and differently from his birth son. One alleged that Anderson would grab the toddler's crotch to punish him and once threw the frightened child into a cold swimming pool. When Anderson bought a sandwich, the caller said, he gave his birth son, then 18 months, the bread and meat while giving Nathan, 3, the hot pepper, which he then forced the child to eat.

A later internal review found that Cherokee child welfare workers did not visit the home until two months after getting that report. Upon finding the house and children clean, the review says, the Cherokee workers closed the case.

The family moved to Gwinnett County, and soon another caller complained that Anderson had twisted the child's leg so severely that he couldn't walk. The caller warned that the family was transient and probably would move.

The family did. When Gwinnett caseworkers went out to the house later that day, the family was gone. Shortly after, the county closed its case, saying the family had fled.

When Georgia created a tracking system in 1990, the idea was to keep people like Nathan's family on the radar screen. Abuse and neglect allegations are difficult to prove, but more than one report on the same family adds credence to the complaints and signals a probable high-priority case, officials say. 

Until 1990, local child welfare workers had no easy way to tell whether a family had a history of maltreatment elsewhere in Georgia, short of calling all 158 other counties and asking. Families could avoid investigation simply by moving. 

The state's solution was to take information stored in thousands of files and put it on a database that was closed to everyone but law enforcement and workers involved in protecting children. 

At the time, lawmakers were so concerned that someone could be falsely stigmatized as a child abuser, they set up an elaborate appeals process to allow adults to get their names off the internal record-keeping system.

Over the years, child advocates began to complain that lawmakers had gone overboard to protect parents' rights while further victimizing children. In hearings before an administrative law judge, parents would appear with their attorneys to argue why their names should be removed from the list. DFACS' lawyer would be present to argue why they should remain on the list. The children, who often were there to testify against their parents, had no one. 

"To us, it raised the case to the level of a juvenile court case just to get a name in the database," said David Hellwig, head of child protective services for the state.

The worst cases, he said, were those where children took the stand and accused their parents, but were not believed. "A child could be made to testify in front of the parent when there was a high likelihood that the law judge was going to rule in favor of the family and send them all home together," he said.

Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the registry was unconstitutional because it violated an alleged abuser's right to always face his accuser. The state has redesigned the database, but Hellwig says it's less useful. For one thing, the alleged maltreater is no longer identified. Only the family's name appears.

Worse, says Hellwig, no one but child welfare workers has access to the list of possible child abusers -- not police, not district attorneys, not medical examiners investigating a child's death. So if police are trying to help find a child -- as state officials said they should have been asked to do when Nathan's family disappeared -- they are not permitted to tap into the database that might help their search.

Records are not clear whether Gwinnett caseworkers knew Nathan's family had a history in Cherokee. But an effective statewide tracking system might have alerted them to handle the complaint about Nathan's leg more delicately and, perhaps, to take immediate steps to remove the boy from his home. Tapping into a national tracking system, if one existed, might have saved his life.

The day the Gwinnett agency received the complaint about Nathan's injured leg, a caseworker rushed to the house to investigate. When she found no one home, she left a note on the door and asked the parents to call. 

That note, the state's internal review later found, "effectively alerted the family that an investigation was under way." The family was not seen in Georgia again.

One year later, on Sept. 7, 1996, 4-year-old Nathan was found dead in a bathtub in the family's home in Mesa, Ariz. A jury later convicted Anderson of first-degree murder after the prosecutor argued he beat and drowned the child because he resembled his birth father. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

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