Two babies with broken ribs in one family, many questions

The Division of Children and Family Services, whose DeKalb office is in an office park off Northlake Parkway, is part of the Georgia Department of Human Services. JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com

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The Division of Children and Family Services, whose DeKalb office is in an office park off Northlake Parkway, is part of the Georgia Department of Human Services. JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com

DFCS response called into question

In the span of a year and a half, a DeKalb County couple brought two of their children to a hospital with broken ribs.

Now both parents face child cruelty charges, and officials are weighing how the family’s story went so wrong.

The first hospital visit was in July 2020 when police charged the mother with allegedly causing numerous injuries to her four-month-old daughter, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Division of Family and Children Services took the infant and a 21-month-old sibling into state custody. One year later, with the criminal charge still unresolved, DFCS returned the children to the parents. A few months after that, the couple had a new daughter, who would soon be found to have a dozen broken ribs, records say.

Experts say the case raises questions about the child protection agency’s response to the alleged abuse. It also illustrates the need for more coordination between criminal courts, family courts and DFCS, they said.

“The problem is that in our system, there’s no coordination between the two courts,” said Peggy Walker, a retired Douglas County Juvenile Court judge and child welfare advocate. Coordination is especially important with children under the age of 3, she said. “They are the highest risk. They will sustain very serious injuries and will have higher rates of death.”

DFCS officials declined to comment on the case or release any related records, saying the documents were exempt from release under state law. Court records in child custody cases are sealed in Georgia, including a judge’s order approving a child’s return to home.

“(The) Division of Family & Children Services takes every report received very seriously,” the agency said in a statement, “and we follow our procedures and practices to ensure children are safe and well-cared for.”

The Stone Mountain parents said they did nothing to harm their children. In interviews with the AJC, they said they’d wondered if the babies might have been suffering from a genetic or medical issue.

“We’re still searching for answers,” mother Shanyah Singh, 23, said, “and I’ve asked for lab results and medical results.”

DFCS doesn’t have a policy against returning children to a parent accused of abusing them. That includes parents who have pending charges of abuse — if a safety plan is successfully completed and the parent’s bond order doesn’t restrict unsupervised contact with the victim.

In an added layer to the case, Singh said DFCS hadn’t known she was pregnant when the first baby and the now 3-year-old boy were returned around September 2021. Singh said the family’s visits with DFCS case workers were done virtually, by video, allowing her to conceal her new pregnancy.

“I was just showing my face. When I talked to the caseworker recently, she said she couldn’t tell,” said the mother. Singh acknowledged she hadn’t told DFCS of the pregnancy because she didn’t want the agency to involve the new baby in the case, as might’ve happened if case workers had known.

A DFCS spokeswoman said case workers have returned to in-person visits except where COVID outbreaks force virtual meetings.

Pending charges

The first DFCS case was opened on the afternoon of July 14, 2020. The parents had brought in the four-month-old girl for “rash like symptoms” and vomiting, according to a DeKalb County police report. “After several clinical tests, the child was found to have numerous old broken ribs, freshly broken ribs, a lacerated liver, and bruising on her back,” an officer wrote.

The parents were interviewed by police, and the mother was charged with child cruelty in the first degree. A DeKalb County Magistrate judge granted Singh $10,000 bond two days later, writing that she must “comply with all orders and recommendations of DFCS.”

A spokeswoman for the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors opposed bond for the mother in the first arrest and for both parents in the next.

The parents told the AJC they followed a case plan drawn up by DFCS and had been allowed supervised visits with the children before the children were returned in September. The couple said those in-person visits were supervised by a DFCS transporter whose job is to drive children to and from visits, not investigating families’ home lives.

Walker, who presided over child abuse cases in Douglas County, said some virtual meetings might be necessary but that case workers should also see parents in person.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the case put into focus the challenges of the pandemic. “There are drawbacks to virtual visits, but the balance of harms still says that in a time of pandemic, they make sense,” he said. “It means you will miss a real case sometimes.”

But Wexler didn’t absolve DFCS.

“If, in fact, these injuries were inflicted, the child should not have been returned,” he said, adding that DFCS should release the case records so the public can understand the agency’s actions. “(DFCS) had a year to figure this out.”

New child goes unnoticed

The parents welcomed their new daughter on Nov. 3, 2021.

On Dec. 12, DeKalb County police, and then DFCS, were notified that the five-week-old had 12 broken ribs, lacerations and was intubated at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta. Arrest warrants for the parents note they said the injuries might’ve been from an overtight car seat. The father, Amahn Miller, 25, said he had suctioned blood from the child’s mouth the day before and that they waited several hours to take her to the hospital, the warrants say.

When granting the parents bond, a magistrate judge ordered that they have no contact at all with any of their children.

DFCS doesn’t have a policy against returning children to parents facing open child abuse cases, according to Walker. Walker said the agency and family court judges know that parents can change, though the reunions can be “really, really high-risk.”

“There needs to be a much greater effort to fast track the criminal cases so that we’re not returning children to a parent and then the parent’s convicted,” Walker said. If convicted, Singh could face between 10 and 40 years in prison; Miller faces 5 to 20.

DFCS also doesn’t have a policy against returning children to a family when a family is expecting another child, the agency confirmed. Former DFCS director Tom Rawlings, who headed the agency until July 2021, said there should be such a rule.

“Common sense says you need to be following that case until she gives birth and then figure out what to do,” Rawlings said. He said he wasn’t criticizing the decision to return the children or the agency’s handling of the case, especially if the mother didn’t tell the agency she was pregnant.

‘Not understanding’

The couple’s youngest two children are with their grandmother, Christine Miller. For now, the youngest daughter is with a foster parent. Miller said the baby still requires a feeding tube. “I didn’t believe I would have been able to handle that,” Christine Miller said.

She told the AJC she remains puzzled by what happened to the babies.

“I’m not understanding what’s really going on,” the grandmother said, adding that she’d never seen reason to suspect the parents of abuse.

The grandmother remained pleased with how DFCS handled the first case. She said it’d been clear that her son and the children’s mother were working hard to be good parents before the children were returned.

Her son Amahn Miller told the newspaper he thought officials had “jumped the gun” by taking his children in the first place, but in the end, he was satisfied with the agency.

“I think they handled things accordingly, according to the way they’re supposed to,” the father said.

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learned in December of a DeKalb County family who’d just brought their 5-week-old daughter to the hospital, officials said, with numerous broken ribs. That was a year and a half after they’d brought in another baby with similar injuries. The newspaper obtained records from police, the county jail and a court clerk. The AJC interviewed experts on child abuse and DFCS, as well as both parents.