Boys burned despite state’s attempts to help

Rockell Coleman came to the attention of the state child protection agency in June of 2013, accused of routinely leaving her five boys on their own, without adult supervision.

The state Division of Family and Children Services worked with the Coleman family for a year, closing the case in July after she completed parenting classes, applied for child care and moved from a filthy, mold-infested house into an apartment.

On Dec. 12, Coleman, 28, was once again accused of leaving her children to fend for themselves. This time three of her sons died of injuries from a house fire. Prosecutors say the children had ignited some leaves in an attempt to keep warm. Coleman is charged with child cruelty and murder.

So what lasting difference did DFCS make? Did Coleman become a better parent? Were her children safe in her care? And more broadly, how much should the state do to monitor and coach parents who are struggling but don’t beat, rape, starve or otherwise grossly harm their children?

Coleman’s case is especially vexing because the questions it raises have no clear-cut answers. It is especially important because it is typical of many if not most DFCS cases, which seldom rise to public notice yet affect the lives and futures of so many Georgia children.

“There’s thousands of families like this in Georgia,” said Normer Adams, a former executive director of a group representing operators of children’s homes. “They are struggling.”

Tom Rawlings, a former state Child Advocate, said the case reveals the limitations of what social work and state intervention can do, especially in light of chronic under-staffing and rising caseloads.

“They’re dealing with problems not easily fixed,” Rawlings said. “You can’t be there 24 hours a day. You can’t necessarily solve the underlying problems of a lack of consistent family support. Essentially, this was a woman going it alone with five children in the house, and she had a number of issues of her own.”

So many challenges

For this story, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed Coleman’s 400-page DFCS file and asked several social service experts to comment on the case. The AJC also spoke with Coleman, who emphasized her love for her children and frustration with DFCS.

“There’s not one day that I don’t think of my children, when I don’t hear their voices, when I don’t smell them, when I don’t cry about them,” she said.

As for DFCS, she said, “They said they were going to help me, but it was more focused on them taking my children.”

The experts all agreed: The Coleman case was not one of those horror stories where DFCS repeatedly missed extreme signs of abuse or neglect. DFCS was unable to verify the original allegation that she left the children alone, so the agency handled the case as a “family preservation” effort, designed to make a weak parent more competent and responsible.

The agency worked hard to overcome the family’s challenges of poverty, unemployment, poor living conditions and behavioral problems on the part of Coleman and at least one of her boys, the experts said. But the file also reveals that, to the evident frustration of her caseworker, Coleman’s steps forward were often followed by at least one step back.

If the agency made an error, several of the experts agreed, it was that it bowed out too soon.

“Ideally, yes it would have been better to keep the case open longer,” said Ron Scroggy, a former head of DFCS. “Very sad outcome. Ultimately the mother was responsible for the safety of her children.”

A thin line

Day in and day out, DFCS treads a thin line between its two roles with parents: removing children or mandating changes to ensure that they are safe, and offering a helping hand to lift a family into a better life. In the Coleman case, it wasn’t long before caseworker Scarlet Chatman was threatening, and at one point attempting, to remove the children because Coleman did not complete the tasks laid out for her.

“She started being very nasty,” Coleman said. “As soon as she came in the house, she was in attitude mode. ‘Ms. Coleman, you need to do this. If you don’t do this we’ll take your kids.’”

The original complaint in 2013 said Coleman habitually left the kids to roam the neighborhood, where they sometimes begged for food or money. The informant said Coleman had recently left them alone for an entire weekend while she traveled to Savannah.

Coleman denied it, insisting that a friend nicknamed “Lefty” was watching the children while she was out of town. Lefty, as well as Coleman’s mother and another friend, backed her up.

DFCS investigators ruled the complaint “unsubstantiated” and described Coleman as “an involved mother aware of the physical/emotional needs of her children” who created “a safe environment within her home.”

Nevertheless, the agency saw stresses that could spell trouble: Coleman was unemployed, financially stretched, largely isolated and emotionally troubled. She told Chatman that she had been abused as a child and lived largely on her own from the age of 14.

Coleman’s five children had five different fathers, most of whom offered little financial support or involvement. One was in prison and another reportedly had fathered 23 children, according to the case file.

Some of the children also had emotional and behavioral problems, though much of that information is redacted from the case file provided to the AJC. One of the boys had a history of setting fires.

A to-do list

DFCS developed a case plan for Coleman, which spelled out what she must do to satisfy the agency that she was up to the demands of mothering. It included completing parenting classes and getting child care for the younger boys, which would allow her to find work. Some of the requirements are redacted from the file, presumably because they involved obtaining medical or mental health services.

For its part, DFCS provided referrals to various services and paid for a trained parent aide who taught parenting classes and helped in a variety of ways.

At times, Coleman seemed happy to avail herself of the help. Other times, she failed to keep appointments, took months to fill out necessary paperwork and let her home get filthy. At times she sent the older boys to school unkempt, could not provide the last name of her purported babysitter, and gave inconsistent excuses for her lapses, the case file indicated.

She repeatedly complained that she was tired of having DFCS and other agencies in her life. In December, 2013, she asked Chatman: “When is this going to be over? I don’t want more people in my business.”

A month earlier, Chatman had written in the case file: “Ms. Coleman continues to verbalize a desire to close the case but is making little to no effort to complete the case plan without extreme encouragement.”

Reports from the parent aide, also in the case file, are more positive. After a session on nurturing strategies, the aide wrote: “Ms. Coleman said that she agreed and understood all the information taught during this session. … The session was completed successfully.”

To gauge Coleman’s progress, Chatman regularly interviewed Jarvis, 10, and A.J., 9, at their school, without their mother present. They always reported being fed and generally said they were not left unsupervised. But on occasion they described having rats in the house, being required to clean up after their brothers, and having to get themselves up and off to school.

‘A complete turnaround’

As the months passed, Chatman periodically warned Coleman that she was going to involve a juvenile court or seek to take the boys away. On April 17, the caseworker made an unannounced visit to the Coleman home. Coleman refused to allow her inside. Chatman wrote that she smelled a “foul odor” emanating from the home and saw “clouds of gnats hovering in the doorway.”

That same afternoon, she asked Juvenile Court Judge Linda Haynes to remove the children from the home and place them in foster care. The judge declined, saying that, in her judgment, it would be more harmful to remove them than to let them remain with Coleman.

None of the experts the AJC talked to faulted the judge for that decision. Given the circumstances at the time, the children were not in imminent danger, they said.

What surprised them was that just three months later, DFCS closed the case. A case summary produced after the children’s deaths asserts that the agency withdrew because “Ms. Coleman made a complete turnaround.”

The documented changes that took place in the intervening months include two items that are not redacted: Coleman got the younger boys signed up for daycare and moved to an apartment that was safe and clean. The case file notes that the apartment was not rented in her name.

At the time of the December fire, the family was living in a different home, which had no electricity or heat, according to prosecutors.

When to quit?

It’s not always clear how long DFCS should stay involved with a family. Has the parent really grown, or has she or he merely complied with the agency’s to-do list in order to get out from under its watchful eye? In this case, several experts said two months of good behavior was not enough to prove Coleman had changed.

“Getting yourself together for two months, anybody can do that,” said Dee Simms, a former state Child Advocate.

DFCS Director Bobby Cagle declined to discuss the case specifically. But he did address some general concerns he had with the way the agency approaches case work. He said he hopes to move away from the emphasis on following policy and procedure as a measure of a family’s health.

“I’m not sure that gets to behavioral change,” Cagle said. He said he wants caseworkers to feel they “have the ability to exercise good professional judgment.”

After the December fire, Coleman insisted she had arranged for a babysitter but that the sitter had not arrived by the time she left the house. Police say their investigation showed that there was no babysitter.

Jarvis, Haskel, 3, and Preston, 4, died of their injuries. Shamari, 4, and A.J. survived. They reportedly said they were burning leaves to warm the unheated house.

“They were lighting leaves in a pan to get warm while the mother was at a warm restaurant eating dinner with friends,” DeKalb prosecutor Mirna Andrews said during a court appearance.