DFCS accepts ‘shared responsibility’ after kids are found buried

Charges against 5 suspects expanded Monday to include felony murder
Authorities say two bodies found buried behind a family home in Effingham County on December 20, 2018, are those of 14-year-old Mary Crocker (left) and her brother Elwyn Crocker Jr., who would have been 16. Elwyn was last seen in November 2016.

Authorities say two bodies found buried behind a family home in Effingham County on December 20, 2018, are those of 14-year-old Mary Crocker (left) and her brother Elwyn Crocker Jr., who would have been 16. Elwyn was last seen in November 2016.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services is changing how it responds to some reports of abuse following the deaths of two children in South Georgia who had extensive histories with the agency.

DFCS said it is accepting “shared responsibility” with others and trying to improve after declining to act on warning signs that Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr. and his younger sister Mary Crocker could be in danger. Five relatives face child abuse charges, which were expanded to include felony murder on Monday.

The children were found buried behind their home in Effingham County on Dec. 20. Documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed DFCS declined to investigate a 2017 report claiming that JR had been brutally beaten a year earlier. Experts told the AJC the agency should have looked into the report.

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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In an interview with The AJC in mid-January, DFCS interim director Tom Rawlings defended the agency saying he believed the employee followed policy, which relies on workers’ judgment to determine if “historical” information shows a child is in imminent danger.

On Wednesday, Rawlings sent employees a memo directing leadership to start working to change the policy, he said. Meantime, he told workers to take “dated” reports of abuse more seriously, especially in cases where the children could be isolated and where DFCS has a history with the family. When dismissing the 2017 report, DFCS knew JR was being home-schooled, which Rawlings said could in some cases contribute to isolation. Child welfare agencies rely largely on school employees to discover and report abuse.

In a statement Friday, Rawlings said DFCS shared “responsibility” with other agencies and neighbors who now regret not acting on warning signs in the Crocker case.

“Those who knew the children have expressed a sense of responsibility and regret for not coming forward with their concerns sooner,” he said. “They are not — and should not be — the only ones. We have a shared responsibility. ... Our response to a tragedy such as this must be to first acknowledge our role in identifying and responding to children who are in danger and then to take action to improve our system as a whole.”

Elwyn Crocker Sr. (Photo: Effingham County Sheriff’s Office)

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The Effingham County Sheriff’s Office is still waiting for the children’s cause of death to be determined. Detectives believe both children were 14 when they were last seen alive — JR in November 2016, Mary in October 2018.

The children’s father, Elwyn Crocker Sr., 50, has been charged with felony murder, 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 and felony murder. The murder charges relate to the death of Mary; authorities said the cause of death was still pending for both children and the investigation was continuing.

All suspects 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.

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 hit in the face by Tony Wright, records show. DFCS closed the case in 2013 after the father and stepmother convinced the agency they would protect the kids from abuse.

From left: Candice Crocker and Kim Wright (Photo: Effingham County Sheriff’s Office)

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In 2017, a student who used to be a neighbor of the family decided to speak to a school counselor about what she said happened to JR a year earlier. She said she was in the next room while a relative beat JR with a belt for an hour and a half. The alleged assailant then made the boy drop his pants to show the red marks, which were supposed to be a punishment for stealing.

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.

Rawlings reiterated Friday that he believes workers had followed policy. The rule was meant to help the agency accomplish its broader goal of striking a balance between preventing unwarranted intervention in families’ lives and protecting endangered children, he said. The policy relied on the premise that a dated story of abuse wasn’t enough to suggest a child was currently in danger.

That premise, Rawlings said, has shown itself to be flawed.