Boy's death during DFCS removal raises concern

Boy's death during DFCS removal raises concern

State child protection workers drove behind a mother before she crashed her car, killing her son, in a tragedy that raises questions about agency pursuits.

Officials initially said no caseworkers pursued the mother. But records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal that two workers trailed the mother in their own car before they lost sight of her and she crashed. The circumstances surrounding the death of 2-year-old Holden Young have people asking whether state caseworkers should engage in vehicle pursuits.

Child advocates say the agency following the mother in Rabun County might have agitated her and provoked her into more reckless actions. Others believe the caseworkers, who had summoned police by cell phone, were only monitoring the children to ensure their safety until police arrived.

DFCS officials are still investigating, but said no policy exists that states whether workers should engage in vehicle pursuits when parents flee with their children. State Child Advocate Tonya Boga said she intends to make sure a policy is put in place. Her agency is investigating the incident and hasn’t drawn any conclusions.

“I would be hard-pressed to believe the workers should in any way chase after parents,” Boga said. “It could put the children at risk, and the caseworkers.”

On Jan. 27, child protection workers tried to find the mother, Misty Dawn Bleckley, 24, by visiting various addresses and calling neighbors and others. They suspected she was on the run, according to the state Division of Family and Children Services case file. The child protection agency had removed Bleckley’s daughter from the household earlier in the month following an abuse allegation and placed the child with a relative. Bleckley recently had failed a drug test. Once caseworkers found her, they were going to remove her other two children.

The two workers -- identified in records only as caseworkers Gates and Treff -- spotted the mother leaving a friend’s home in Rabun County and followed her teal Honda Accord in their own vehicle. However, they lost track of Bleckley’s car, which contained all three of her children, moments before she lost control at a high speed on a curve and crashed into a tree on Old 441.

DFCS spokeswoman Lisa Marie Shekell said the agency’s initial reports indicated the caseworkers weren’t pursuing Bleckley at the time of the crash, but DFCS continues to investigate the agency’s handling of the case.

When the caseworkers arrived at the crash scene, Bleckley climbed up the embankment and began screaming at them, claiming the crash was their fault. She was charged with DUI. The woman’s two other children were injured in the crash, according to a Georgia State Patrol report.

Holden Young was one of four Georgia children who died within four days in January, and each of their families had a history with DFCS. The agency is investigating the series of child deaths, and said it hasn’t determined whether there was any agency or worker wrongdoing.

It’s unclear how fast the caseworkers drove or whether they aggressively chased, or merely trailed, Bleckley’s car.

The public defender representing the mother, who is charged with homicide by vehicle, criticized the workers for following the mother.

“Basically DFCS was chasing her,” said Drew Powell, the circuit public defender for the Mountain Judicial Circuit. “It would seem to me to be dangerous.”

Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center in Atlanta, said it’s difficult to the blame the caseworkers because it appears they were not following the mother at the time of the crash. Caseworkers shouldn’t place themselves in danger, and, when a situation becomes tense, the police should be summoned to remove the children, she said. Vehicle pursuits are rare, Carter said.

Trailing a person fleeing with their children can help provide information for responding police, said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “They were doing the best job they could to protect these kids,” he said.

When the state removes children from a home due to child abuse or neglect, the situation can be volatile. In this instance, the two DFCS workers made numerous phone calls and visits before receiving information that Bleckley was at a friend’s home in the Rabun County community of Tiger. They received no answer at the home, but saw the Honda Accord parked in front with child seats inside. They contacted police to come to the home, and waited for the officers at the intersection of Old 441 and Mountain Stream Lane, DFCS records showed.

Spotting the Honda and a Mountaineer vehicle together enter Old 441, the caseworkers followed and contacted 911 dispatch by cell phone to advise them that the family was traveling. The Mountaineer stayed between the caseworkers and Bleckley, slowing to 35 mph. Once the caseworkers passed the Mountaineer, they didn’t see the Accord. A short time later, the workers received a police call informing them that the mother’s car had crashed.

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