EXCLUSIVE: DFCS dismissed abuse report before kids were found buried

Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr and Mary Crocker.

Credit: WJCL-TV Effingham County Sheriff's Office

Credit: WJCL-TV Effingham County Sheriff's Office

Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr and Mary Crocker.

The girl said she saw something awful. Her neighbor, Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr., an Effingham County boy, had been beaten by a woman for more than an hour. She said a woman whipped JR with a belt and told him to stop screaming. Afterward, he was forced to drop his pants to show off the belt’s marks.

The Division of Family and Children Services, the state agency responsible for protecting Georgia's kids, heard this account in 2017 but declined to investigate because the alleged incident had occurred a year earlier, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The remains of JR and his younger sister, Mary, were discovered in December, buried behind their family's trailer in Effingham County. Experts say DFCS, which had an extensive history with the family, should have investigated the girl's claims.

“In hindsight, it’s pretty clear they made a mistake,” said Ken Lanning, a retired FBI agent who was involved in child abuse cases for decades. “How do you just so easily disregard it?”

The girl, who is not named in documents the AJC obtained through an open records request, talked to a school counselor on March 16, 2017. She said she’d witnessed the incident a year earlier and decided to come forward after a school lesson on child abuse. The counselor then relayed the details to DFCS through its central intake system, which is responsible for screening such reports and then assigning case workers, records show. It isn’t clear if JR was still alive at the time of the girl’s statement; Effingham County Sheriff’s deputies say he was last seen in November 2016 when he was 14. Mary Crocker was last seen in October 2018 at age 14.

Effingham deputies discovered JR and Mary Crocker's remains on Dec. 20 near the city of Guyton, about 30 miles from Savannah. The search happened after a 911 caller expressed concern for Mary's whereabouts. JR and Mary had both been homeschooled and were never reported missing. Authorities haven't yet determined a cause or date of death for either child, and they haven't released any theories about how the children died.

Elwyn Crocker Sr. and his wife Candice Crocker pose with the husband's kids, from left, Mary, James and JR in a 2010 photo posted publicly on the dad's Facebook page.

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The children’s father, Elwyn Crocker Sr., 50, has been charged with child cruelty and concealing a death. The same charges have also been filed against his wife, Candice Crocker, 33; her mother, Kim Wright, 50; and Wright’s boyfriend, Roy Anthony Prater, 55. Candice Crocker’s brother, Tony Wright, 31, has been charged with cruelty to children. All remain in jail. Authorities say none of them have lawyers; a spokesperson from the Effingham County public defender’s office told the AJC it’s unclear if the office will take the case.

The AJC has phoned and mailed requests for comment to all five suspects and has not yet received a response.

DFCS had been involved with the family in 2012 and 2013, guiding Elwyn and Candice Crocker through counseling and parenting classes after accusations that JR had been abused, records show. According to the case file, the DFCS intake employee who decided the agency would not pursue the student’s tip was aware of the previous case, but decided against a new case because the alleged beating was “historical.”

DFCS interim director Tom Rawlings defended the decision. The employee followed policy that relies on workers’ judgment on opening new cases on “historical” information (more than several months old) unless a child is in imminent danger, he said. At the same time, he said the agency is reviewing policy guidelines to improve, especially in cases where children seem isolated from the outside world, as JR and Mary were.

“It’s not one of those situations that shocks my conscience and says we did something wrong,” Rawlings said. “Given what the intake person knew at the time, I can’t fault her. We can’t say simply because something turned out wrong that you’ve done the wrong thing.”

How many hits?

The girl who shared her account of the beating incident is identified in the documents only as a former neighbor of the family. The girl identified the alleged assailant as “Kim,” JR’s “grandmother,” the documents say. Rawlings said he believes the girl’s account makes clear that Kim Wright, who is actually a step grandmother, is the woman the girl was referring to.

The girl said she was in the next room when JR was being beaten for 10 to 20 minutes. The woman wielding the belt asked the girl who would later make the report how many times JR should be struck. Scared, the girl gave a random number, and the beating went on for another hour, she told the counselor.

JR and the girl then were taken to the Crockers’ trailer in nearby Rincon where JR was forced to drop his pants. The marks, his assailant said, were his punishment for stealing, according to the girl.

The girl, whose family has since moved, said she came forward after an early childhood education teacher discussed child abuse in a lesson.

Matthew Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia and longtime children’s advocate, said the fact that the girl waited a year shouldn’t have mattered — DFCS should’ve run down the tip. At the same time, he understands the difficulties the agency’s workers face, because many tips end up being unsubstantiated, and investigation can cause trauma for families.

<p>Elwyn Crocker Sr.</p> <p>Elwyn Crocker Jr and Mary Crocker&nbsp;</p> <p>Kim Wright, Candice Crocker, Elwyn Crocker&nbsp;</p>

Credit: Effingham County Sheriff’s Office WJCL-TV WJCL-TV

icon to expand image

Credit: Effingham County Sheriff’s Office WJCL-TV WJCL-TV

DFCS records show the worker declined to open the investigation and two other employees agreed with her within hours after the tip came in.

Richard Wexler, who has studied DFCS and is the director of National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said workers suffer from heavy caseloads and sometimes need more time to consider tips or else they can make “mistakes all over.”

The number of reports the agency gets from the public about suspected child abuse skyrocketed after DFCS created a centralized statewide hotline in the wake of a series of high profile child deaths leading up to 2013, as the AJC has documented. Rawlings said the agency now receives more than 100,000 reports a year, and he acknowledged workers have heavy loads, which is something he’s working to solve. He disagreed, however, that heavy workloads played a part in the 2017 report’s handling, because he believes the worker followed policy.

Family’s known DFCS history 

In March 2012, DFCS was called by deputies to Kim Wright’s home in Effingham County after a stranger at a Goodwill store saw marks on JR’s face and called authorities, records say. At the time, Elwyn and Candice Crocker, along with JR and Mary, had recently relocated from South Carolina and moved in with Wright, records say.

Candice Crocker told DFCS investigators the marks came from a recent day when JR was acting up and Elwyn Cocker Sr. gave her family permission to discipline him. She told investigators her brother, Tony Wright, struck JR in the face. Tony Wright, 22 at the time, was arrested and ordered to stay away from JR, the DFCS records say. The AJC has sent multiple written requests for that and other arrest records to the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office without fulfillment.

JR, 11 at the time, told the case worker he had “made” Tony Wright hit him because he was “lying, stealing” and generally being bad, documents say.

The Crockers soon moved out of Kim Wright’s home, which JR told a DFCS worker he was happy about because Kim Wright was not “very nice” to him, documents say.

By November 2012, DFCS had met with the family numerous times. The agency’s workers were impressed with the turnaround, reports indicate. “Both Candice and Elwyn understand why they became involved with (DFCS), and they are willing to protect Elwyn Jr. from any physical abuse,” one DFCS worker wrote. The case was closed in February 2013.

It isn’t clear if the hotline workers in 2017 noticed — or looked for — parallels between the 2012 case and the girl’s statements, but they were there: the allegations of JR stealing, Kim Wright not being “very nice” and JR blaming himself.

When JR emerged from the beating, the girl said, he apologized for screaming so loud.

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