Georgia’s long-troubled child welfare agency has responded to the recent highly publicized death of a 10-year-old Gwinnett County girl by firing two employees and punishing four others.
Officials said the child protection workers failed to act on warning signs prior to the death of Emani Moss, whose emaciated, burned body was found in a trash can outside her family’s apartment. The disciplinary actions follow the firings of two other agency workers over the death of another child, 12-year-old Eric Forbes.
Though unrelated, the two deaths this fall crystallized public doubts about the handling of abuse and neglect investigations in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of child-maltreatment deaths. Simply punishing workers who make mistakes is not enough to correct systemic problems within the state Division of Family and Children’s Services, according to the agency’s critics and child-protection experts.
“(These actions) may have been necessary, but we need to be looking at the agency’s culture, policies and practices,” said Tom Rawlings, a former director of the state Office of the Child Advocate.
According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, DFCS officials said the employees and supervisors failed to assess the risks to the child or to properly review the family’s troubled history.
The agency also said it is taking broader actions to review child safety policies and procedures.
The disciplinary actions may close the books on the Emani Moss case but fall short of addressing larger issues surrounding child welfare in Georgia. A yearlong investigation by the AJC found that few states failed at protecting its children more than Georgia. Its death rate from child maltreatment has been more than double the national average in some recent years.
Despite periodic waves of reform during the past two decades, DFCS has remained unable to adequately deal with many of the approximately 70,000 reports of abuse or neglect it receives each year. In an analysis of 86 cases from 2012 in which children died despite DFCS intervention with their families, the Journal-Constitution identified at least 25 deaths in which the agency’s workers did not detect or did not act on signs that children were at imminent risk.
Many DFCS workers feel pressure to open fewer abuse and neglect investigations and to reduce the number of children taken into foster care, the newspaper found. Over the last decade, DFCS began evaluating employee performance partly on holding down the number of open cases. The agency set a goal that 30 percent of all children taken into DFCS custody be placed with relatives rather than in a foster home.
This push had a dramatic effect: From 2004 to 2012, Georgia’s foster care rolls dropped by almost half. During that time, according to federal statistics, only two states recorded a larger decline in foster children. And in 2012, 152 children died even though DFCS had intervened with their families in the previous five years.
DFCS said Wednesday it is taking “proactive” steps to improve its response to abuse and neglect reports. Perhaps most significant, the agency said it is reviewing abuse reports that have been “screened out” — closed without investigation — in the past year. Two reports alleging that Emani Moss had been abused were screened out in the 18 months before she died. Similarly, DFCS workers disregarded at least one report concerning Eric Forbes.
In addition, DFCS said it will ensure that workers who evaluate reports consider a family’s history with the agency. Beginning next year, an external panel will review random samples of cases and flag those that need extra attention, the agency said in a statement.
DFCS said two workers, Chelsea Adams and Anshay Tull, accepted reports of suspected abuse or neglect involving Emani Moss in 2012 and 2013, but screened them out without a proper review. Tull was fired and Adams received a “memorandum of concern.”
The other four workers were supervisors who approved closing the cases. Twanna McMillan was fired. Regina Dismuke received a written reprimand. Lori Ann Spears and Donna Hanley both received reprimands, were demoted and were removed from child protective services.
Emani’s family had an extensive history with the child welfare agency, which removed her for a time from the home in 2010 after she had been abused with a belt.
The girl’s stepmother, Tiffany Moss, and father, Eman Moss, have been charged with her murder.
Rawlings, the state’s former child advocate, said he has seen positive changes in the system, but he worries that some practices remain from a time when the agency pressured workers to screen out cases “without sufficient focus on safety.”
The agency’s actions against the workers hardly satisfied Emani’s grandmother, Robin Moss.
“I think they got off light,” Moss said. “They need to be in jail for what they did.”
Or at least fired, Moss said.
Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University law school, was particularly critical of the DFCS administrator who knew Emani’s family history but still approved screening out her case.
“It’s too blatant,” Carter said. “This was just a fundamental failure to follow proper practice.”
Still, she supported DFCS action in regards to the workers.
“I feel it’s a fairly comprehensive response,” Carter said.
In response to failings within DFCS, Gov. Nathan Deal recently proposed spending $27 million over the next three years to hire 525 additional child-protection workers – an increase of 26 percent. On Wednesday, he praised the agency’s handling of the fallout from the Emani Moss and Eric Forbes cases.
“Should there be evidence that there’s a problem that’s deeper and more widespread, then we will take a more broad-scale look at the problem,” Deal said. “We do think that what we’ve done is appropriate in the short term at least.”
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.