DFCS chief: Girl’s death does not reflect larger agency problems

Georgia’s child protection chief said the recent death of a 2-year-old girl in foster care does not reflect problems across the state agency, but a local child welfare advocate disagrees.

Bobby Cagle, director of the Division of Family and Children Services, said the agency made mistakes in watching over little Laila Marie Daniel while she was in foster care. He laid blame squarely on the flawed decision-making of the child's caseworker, Samantha White, and her supervisor, Tamara Warner, both of whom have been fired.

But Tom Rawlings, a former head of the state Office of the Child Advocate, disagreed. He said the Henry County girl’s case reflects problems that caseworkers have in distinguishing between injuries caused by childhood play and mishaps versus child abuse.

The disagreement occurs as DFCS seeks to glean lessons from Laila's death. DFCS has a history of problems caring for children in foster care, and several children have died over the years while under the agency's watch.

Cagle was hired 18 months ago to fix the system, and this year has been filled with initiatives aimed at turning around DFCS, including a boost in its budget.

Laila’s case is particularly vexing for the agency, in that the woman DFCS chose as a caregiver, Jennifer Rosenbaum, has been charged with beating, starving and killing the child on Nov. 17.

Corinne Mull, Rosenbaum’s attorney, said Laila died after Jennifer Rosenbaum performed the Heimlich maneuver and CPR when the child was choking on some chicken. Mull said the force of the compressions may have injured the child.

DFCS officials have said the caseworker and supervisor did not heed warnings about Rosenbaum, or investigate injuries to the girl that were red flags of potential abuse.

“These individuals made mistakes,” Cagle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “But I would caution against painting the work of the agency with the same brush as you paint these workers. … At this point I have no indication this is a systemic problem.”

He said policies and training were in place that could have saved Laila. The caseworker and supervisor simply failed to follow them. When one of the girl’s former foster parents raised concerns about Rosenbaum’s care for Laila and her sister, the caseworker should have looked into it, he said.

When the caseworker saw Laila had sustained a broken leg and other injuries, she should have investigated, rather than just believing Rosenbaum’s explanation.

Ashley Willcott, Georgia’s state child advocate, agreed with Cagle. Willcott was appointed by the governor to be a watchdog over DFCS. And she said the DFCS maladies often linked to children’s deaths — inexperienced workers, high employee turnover, and an unmanageable amount of cases — don’t apply here.

‘Third or fourth situation’

DFCS officials say Laila’s caseworker had a reasonable workload of about 15 cases. The caseworker had two years’ experience on the job, and her supervisor had five years with the agency, two as a supervisor.

Those explanations didn’t satisfy Rawlings, who served as state child advocate from 2007 to 2010.

He said, “This is the third or fourth situation that I’ve encountered in the last couple of years where caseworkers did not bother to take significant action to verify the cause of a child’s injuries.”

Rawlings pointed to the death of 12-year-old Eric Forbes of Paulding County in October 2013. Despite Forbes’ school calling DFCS several times with concerns about injuries to the boy, the agency believed the explanation of the boy’s father that they had occurred while he played football.

Last month, Eric’s father, Shayaa Forbes, pleaded guilty to felony murder in his son’s death and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

‘Maximize objectivity’

Jennifer Rosenbaum seemed on the surface to be a community-minded, well-connected person. Working her way through Emory University School of Law, she had served as an intern at the state Legislature and the local court.

She also came to DFCS' attention with endorsements from a local assistant district attorney and a juvenile court judge. That might have made the caseworker more willing to believe Rosenbaum when she offered explanations for Laila's injuries, Cagle said.

Caseworkers are trained to avoid such preferential biases, but Cagle said he will examine training and policies to see if more can be done.

“We’re looking into … how to maximize objectivity in decision-making,” Cagle said.

‘Position of power’

Henry County District Attorney James Wright said earlier this week that he was reviewing emails that assistant district attorney Mary Evans-Battle sent to DFCS, encouraging the agency to speed up its approval of Rosenbaum as a caregiver for Laila.

Rosenbaum had served as a legal intern under Battle.

Wright said he has concluded that the emails were appropriate. “I didn’t see anything that was intimidating or anything like that,” he said.

But Willcott, the current state child advocate, said that such communications can be perceived as pressure on the agency.

“If people are recommended by those in a position of power, (DFCS) is going to feel pressure,” she said.