On Thursday, some two dozen women showed up to a first appearance court hearing for a stranger.
The spectators were just some of the supporters calling for mercy for Diana Elliott, who stands accused of abandoning her mute 14-year-old son, who police say has Down Syndrome, at Grady Memorial Hospital last week. After her subsequent arrest, the mother told police she was “overwhelmed caring for her son” along with her three other children, who are all minors. She was charged with felony child cruelty, and all of the children were taken into custody by the Division of Family and Children Services.
The bizarre case has drawn widespread attention and started a broader discussion about how families struggle to get by when they have a child who has special needs, while they also may be enduring economic troubles. Articles about the case caught fire online, leading some on social media to express sympathy for the 37-year-old mother. She was arrested by police at a DeKalb County hotel, where they said she was living with her children.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday, DFCS director Tom Rawlings said he couldn’t legally disclose whether the family had a history with the agency, but he said he hopes the case can serve as a reminder that struggling families have access to services that may keep them from becoming desperate.
“It really can push these families to the breaking point,” he said, referring to caring for a child with special needs on top of economic issues. “We want to encourage these folks to ask for help. There are mental health services, homelessness services, children medical services.”
The story began on the night of Dec. 4 when Atlanta police said Elliott left her son at the hospital before getting in a red minivan and leaving. Police wrote in a report that they were unable to communicate with the teen because he is non-verbal. Officers released surveillance photos of the woman and a picture of the boy asking for the public to help identify them.
The next day, police announced they had confirmed their identities and the mother had been arrested.
Elliott was charged with first-degree child cruelty, a crime that carries a sentence of between five and 20 years in prison. The judge at the first court appearance hearing granted her a $10,000 signature bond, allowing her to leave jail.
Many nuances of the family’s life and the case haven’t yet come into full view, but onlookers so far seem to largely be sympathetic to Elliott’s plight.
Sheryl Arno, executive director of Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta, was among the people at the court hearing. While Arno does not know the family’s full story, she said having a child with Down Syndrome can be extraordinarily trying.
And that makes her empathize with the mother.
“My assumption is that Diana was overwhelmed and felt like there was no one was there to support her,” she said.
In some cases, children can spend a month in the hospital due to complications, Arno said. They may also have feeding issues. “Not only does it weigh on you financially, it weighs on you physically and emotionally,” Arno said.
DFCS director Rawlings said he could understand why some might wonder if the mother was afraid of losing all her children if she admitted the trouble she was having caring for the boy.
Rawlings said he knows some residents think DFCS is an agency that separates families but in fact, that is the last thing they want to do. Annually, DFCS gets more than 100,000 calls to its hotline, but case workers only take about 15 percent of children they encounter into state custody. In 2018, Rawlings said the agency spent $38 million in efforts and services to keep families together.
“The philosophy is: Children ought to be raised by their parents,” he said.
Elliott is expected to return to court on Dec. 26 to face her charge. What will happen with Elliott’s family is still unclear.
Families in need of assistance can contact the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225 or Prevent Child Abuse Georgia Helpline at 1-800-CHILDREN.
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