(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]

A training academy for child welfare workers here was the first in the nation -- but is it teaching them what they need to know?

By Jane Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
The Albany Herald / Special
Pam Byron tried to get help from DFACS, but caseworkers said she could take care of herself. She was killed by a cousin in 1996.

Ten years ago, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and the state of Georgia set up the nation's first training institute for child welfare workers.

The hope and dream was for a state-of-the-art training program that would give caseworkers tools to assess the danger to children in their homes. At the time, many were having trouble recognizing signs of serious problems before a child was seriously injured or killed, state officials found.

"The children's academy will put Georgia in the forefront of service development and in leading the nation in its commitment to meeting the needs of children," said then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris in announcing creation of the Georgia Children's Training Academy. But a decade later, despite the millions spent on training, many caseworkers still lack basic skills. Some child welfare officials complain that the academy's training is too heavily weighted on policy issues, when workers really need nuts-and-bolts training on how to handle cases. The public-private venture this year gave $2.5 million to the privately operated academy.

"We would like it to have more emphasis on .Ê.Ê. what works," said Tony Kriemborg, director of Glynn County DFACS. 

An evaluation arranged by what is now called the Georgia Academy found this year that Georgia caseworkers and supervisors overall gave high ratings to the academy's training, but they recommended more activities based on real-life scenarios. 

In the state's worst failures -- the cases in which children die -- records show that caseworkers often missed repeated warning signs that a child was in danger. They frequently ignored doctors, teachers and other professionals who had reported abuse, siding instead with parents and accepting their explanations for suspicious injuries. 

In some cases, they failed to interview the children alone, away from the influence of parents. In others, they simply disregarded what the children said. 

Consider the case of Pam Byron, a Worth County girl whose drug-addicted mother, records show, periodically went away to drug treatment and occasionally to jail. 

The earliest complaints had to do with neglect. One person reported that Pam's 3-year-old brother was wandering through the neighborhood, crying and asking neighbors for food. Other callers alleged that the mother was using food stamps and welfare checks to buy drugs rather than to feed and clothe her children.

In April 1994, when Pam was 13, she filed a complaint that her mother had slapped her 5-year-old brother in the face and then beat Pam over the head when she complained. 

The caseworker confirmed that "physical abuse occurs occasionally" but allowed the children to remain in the home because their grandmother also lived there. 

The reports continued to trickle in, but caseworkers believed Pam was safe with her grandmother. Caseworkers also helped the mother get into drug treatment. 

Despite the history of neglect and abuse, Pam seemed to rise above her environment. The pastor of her church, where she sang in the choir, described her as a sweet, smiling girl who was "quite beautiful." She was proud of her grades in the eighth grade and dreamed of going to college.

In 1995, the department received a report that someone in Pam's household had made sexual advances toward her. The girl said the report was true -- that the man had come into her bedroom and offered her $20, then $50, if he could touch her. Despite her statement and the family's history, the caseworker called the complaint "unfounded."

She noted in the file, however, that she had advised Pam, then 14, to "put a straight chair under the door knob and this will keep anyone from coming in."

"Pam can protect herself," she wrote in closing the case. 

Evidently Pam could not. 

In April 1996, when she was 15, her 29-year-old cousin -- who was living with the family after his release from prison -- tried to rape Pam. When she rejected him, the prosecutor later said, he strangled her with a power tool cord, then doused her with lighter fluid and set her on fire. The cousin, Marvin Spence, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.

After Pam's death, the brother she had tried to protect told a caseworker that Pam would no longer be there for him when he got home from school. She was "in heaven and an angel," the little boy said.

Back to top  |  Email staff writer Jane O. Hansen

[Back to Terrell Peterson Pages] [GAHSC Home Page]

ajc.com brought to you in partnership with AccessAtlanta
© 1999 Cox Interactive Media