A month after a 6-year-old boy was allegedly killed by his grandfather during an argument over a watermelon, a review of his state child welfare records raises questions about whether he should have been placed in his grandparents' home.
Michael Levigne moved into the home around September 2005, after his troubled parents transferred care of him and his brother to the grandparents, according to interviews with state officials and child welfare records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But Michael's 1,200-page DFCS file does not contain such an assessment. DFCS officials say they can't find it, either, but they say they believe one occurred.
The lack of that assessment — which would have determined whether the home was a safe and suitable place for children — has led State Child Advocate Tom Rawlings to question whether Michael and his younger brother should have been placed there.
"I'm concerned that those children were placed in a home that [a child welfare] office said was not appropriate," Rawlings said. The State Child Advocate is appointed by the governor as a watchdog over DFCS.
The DFCS records and accounts by Rawlings paint a picture of a child whose parents had a history of drug and emotional problems and how he and his brother came under the care of their grandparents.
In March 2004, DFCS workers did a separate evaluation of the grandparents' home in connection with the possible placement of children other than Michael. DFCS found "too many red flags" to place them there, Rawlings said.
The March 2004 home evaluation indicated that the boy's grandmother, Linda Clark, had been arrested in Florida on a child abuse charge in 1993. The charge was dropped, Rawlings said.
A second home evaluation, eight months later in November 2004, determined that the home was acceptable for children, Rawlings said.
On June 7 of this year, Michael was shot dead by his grandfather, Robert Clark, at their home in Commerce during an argument over who cut into a watermelon, police said.
Robert Clark also shot his wife, police said, before he was wounded in a standoff with authorities.
Linda Clark remains in the intensive care unit at Grady Memorial Hospital, and Robert Clark is in the medical wing of the Hall County jail, charged with murder and aggravated assault.
Michael's brother was taken into DFCS care.
Long history with DFCS
Michael had a long history with the state child welfare system, according to the DFCS file that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained through the state open records law.
In addition to his parents' drug and emotional problems, the family had issues with housing, unemployment, poverty, according to the records and accounts by Rawlings, the state child advocate.
Rawlings said he is concerned that the agency did not thoroughly review the grandparents' home before allowing Michael and his brother William to live there.
"The record tells us up front that [a] county DFCS office was very concerned about placing children in that home," Rawlings said. "It is incumbent on the state to make sure that the placement is going to be a safe one."
DFCS Director Mark Washington, who was not with the agency in 2005, said he did not find that requested home assessment in the boy's file. But he did point to a case file entry on Aug. 8, 2005, that indicated a caseworker "told Mrs. Clark her home has been approved for short-term stay by Jackson County DFCS."
Rawlings said that is not acceptable proof that a home assessment was done.
He noted that there can be a difference between a home evaluation and a home assessment. An assessment can be a quicker review for a short-term stay. A more extensive home evaluation can include interviews with the caregivers, relatives and neighbors as well as criminal background checks.
Either way, the documents should be included in the record, Rawlings said.
Child abuse charge dropped
The child abuse charge against Linda Clark, noted in the March 2004 evaluation, pertained to a 1993 incident in which Clark's teenage son came home drunk, started "trouble" with his mother, and she hit him on a the head with a broomstick, said DFCS spokeswoman Dena Smith. The charge was later dropped.
DFCS officials have stressed that there has never been a substantiated case of child abuse or neglect regarding the Clarks and their care of Michael and his brother, and that the agency did not have an open case on the family at the time of Michael's death.
"Did we ask the right questions? Did we make the right evaluations?" said DFCS Director Washington. "I can see evidence of those."
Linda Clark, he said, was a thoughtful caregiver to Michael and his brother.
During an August 2007 meeting with a caseworker, Robert Clark said the two boys were a "blessing," according to DFCS documents. The child welfare agency did on a few occasions help the Clarks obtain assistance services, and agency officials say there were no signs of trouble with the boys' care.
Rawlings said the state Child Advocate Office is continuing to explore the case.