Georgia’s child protection agency dismissed a report last year that Emani Moss had been beaten with a belt without sending caseworkers to interview the girl, examine her injuries or question her parents.
Describing the beating as “corporal punishment,” the agency “screened out” the case over the telephone despite four prior maltreatment investigations involving the Gwinnett County child. The most recent one had ended with her stepmother’s conviction on a child cruelty charge.
The performance of the state Division of Family and Children’s Services came to light Thursday as officials continued investigating events that led to Emani’s death last week. Police charged her father, Eman Moss, and her stepmother, Tiffany Moss, with murder and other charges after the 10-year-old’s emaciated, burned body was found in a trash can outside their Lawrenceville apartment. Authorities say the girl may have died a few days earlier from starvation.
Emani’s killing, combined with the death in October of 12-year-old Eric Forbes in Paulding County, prompted DFCS to begin re-examining hundreds of similar cases statewide that it has closed with little or no investigation, the agency’s director, Sharon Hill, said in an interview Thursday. The failures highlighted by the two recent cases have agency workers urgently asking a fundamental question, Hill said: “Did we miss something?”
“The deaths of these two children are just devastating to us,” Hill said. “My goal is to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Hill, who took charge of the agency in August, also plans to institute ongoing reviews of cases that are quickly dismissed. Employees without direct involvement in the cases will examine whether additional investigation was needed before cases were closed, she said.
“The magnitude of these decisions is such that they cannot be made by one or two people,” Hill said.
In Emani’s case, the worker who took the April 2012 report from a Gwinnett County teacher could have seen that the girl’s family had a history with DFCS that dated to at least 2003.
Documents that DFCS released Thursday were heavily redacted, so many details are still unclear. However, the documents show that in 2003 and 2005 the agency investigated allegations that Emani or her siblings had been neglected. Both times, though, caseworkers said they could not substantiate the claims.
In 2008, DFCS received a report from an unidentified adult – apparently a relative of Emani’s – that suggested the girl may have been sexually abused. When the adult asked Emani if she had been touched inappropriately, the girl answered, “If I tell anyone, then I wouldn’t be able to see you anymore.”
After meeting with the girl and a teacher, a caseworker wrote, “No concerns were noted.” DFCS assigned the case to a status known as “diversion,” in which families are referred to other agencies for counseling or other services. The DFCS documents do not detail what services were offered to Emani’s family. Hill said that typically in such cases, DFCS does not follow up to learn whether a family complies.
Two years after the sexual abuse allegation, in March 2010, DFCS opened another investigation after Emani came to school with wounds from being beaten with a belt. She told a teacher she was hit for not finishing school work. She was afraid to go home, according to a DFCS report, because she received a report card that day with three “N’s” – poor grades indicating “needs improvement.”
After Tiffany Moss was charged with child cruelty, DFCS apparently placed Emani in foster care for several weeks, the agency report indicates. Caseworkers returned her to the family home after determining that the parents had “made significant positive changes” that reduced the risk of harm to Emani. The girl “made no further outcry of being physically punished,” the report said, and workers closed the case in November 2010.
Details of those cases were available to the DFCS worker who took a call from Emani’s school on May 17, 2012, Hill said.
Emani had come to school that day complaining she had been struck in the back and the head with a belt for eating breakfast too slowly, making her late for her bus. She said she was hit three times, once in each of three rooms.
DFCS redacted a description of Emani’s injuries.
But an agency report said a worker “screened out” the report with the notation, “No maltreatment alleged.”
“The injury was identified as insignificant,” the report said, “and determined to be corporal punishment.”
That resolution was one of several “missed opportunities” to protect Emani, Hill said Thursday. The worker who dismissed the case and the supervisor who approved the decision should have taken the family’s history into consideration, Hill said.
“When you put that together,” she said, “it certainly does elevate it to a different level.”
Regardless, this August, DFCS closed yet another case involving Emani without investigation.
An anonymous caller reported that Emani “is distant and appears afraid to interact.” The caller said the girl appeared to be too thin and suggested she was being neglected.
But, according to the DFCS report, the caller had not seen the family in three months and couldn’t provide their home address. Within 24 hours, DFCS had closed the case.
Hill said DFCS workers evaluating maltreatment reports should consider the fact that a family had been the subject of earlier investigations to be a red flag for current trouble.
“It would be my expectation they will be looking at the history,” she said. “To not look at the history is something that we cannot tolerate.”