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

Constitution: Veteran DFACS workers save lives
Thursday, August 3, 2000

As the public agency charged with protecting Georgia's abused and neglected children, the state Division of Family and Children Services often comes under attack for its failures. Seldom does the agency receive praise for the children it saves.

One of those may have been a 3-year-old Cobb girl whose mother married a convicted child molester. The woman apparently did not grasp the danger that she was placing her daughter in when she married the man in 1998. Gratefully, a case manager in the Cobb Department of Family and Children Services did.

Jo Ann Bone began an investigation that eventually led to the girl's being placed with family friends rather than with her mother and stepfather. While the man had undergone treatment following his abduction and molestation of an 11-year-old girl in 1994, Bone and her colleagues feared he would repeat his offense.

Their instincts proved on target. A year after he married the little girl's mother, Wayne Cody Morita kidnapped, brutally raped and left for dead a 5-year-old child in Cobb County. The little girl survived and testified at Morita's trial last month. Found guilty, Morita could face life imprisonment when the sentencing phase occurs next week.

Ideally, all parents ought to act in the best interest of their children. But, as the mother who married Morita demonstrated, parents sometimes do the unfathomable. That's when it falls to child protective services to step in, assess the situation and remove the child, if necessary.

Bone drew on 17 years of experience with DFACS in determining that Morita represented a threat to the child. That experience is invaluable, especially in cases that deal with potential harm to children rather than with clearly visible bruises. Unfortunately, such experience is becoming rare among social workers. In fiscal year 1999, the turnover rate among Georgia's child protective services workers was 39 percent. In 22 of Georgia's smaller counties, the rate was 100 percent.

As well as being among the lowest-paid child protection service workers in the country, Georgia's caseworkers juggle overwhelming caseloads. When a child dies as a result of a lapse by protective services, the cause is frequently the inexperience of caseworkers, who failed to recognize danger signs or move aggressively to remove the child.

Conversely, when a child is saved, it's often because a trained person like Bone spotted the warning signs and put the child's safety ahead of the "rights" of the adults. That's as it should be.

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