Teen starved to death in spite of state's involvement

Huddled overnight beneath the shopping carts at Walmart, Markea Berry confided in her journal that she would rather live at the store than at home.

The next day, after store employees found her wandering among the produce, the Smyrna teen told police she had run away because she didn't want to be a burden on her mother. She was 14, but she was so small and skinny that she looked five years younger.

Now, less than two years later, Markea is dead; at the time of her death in June she weighed 43 pounds. The mother she wanted not to burden, Ebony Berry, is charged with murder. She is accused of starving her daughter to death despite multiple investigations over nearly 10 years by child protection workers in Michigan and later in Georgia.

The last time the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services had contact with the family — a couple of months after Markea's Walmart escapade in 2010 — the caseworker and supervisor noted their concerns that Markea was undernourished. But the agency closed the case after Berry sidestepped efforts to compel her to get medical attention for Markea and her siblings.

Markea's is a death that should never have happened, said DFCS Director Ron Scroggy.

"This case should have remained open and a care plan should have been put in place and followed up on," he said.

Scroggy said the agency is revamping its protocol for cases in which a worker suspects that a child is malnourished. It's also refining its procedures for determining from the start whether a child is in immediate or impending danger.

The caseworker in Markea's case left the agency about a year ago, Scroggy said. A caseworker cannot close a case without the permission of a supervisor. The supervisor in this case remains with DFCS, Scroggy said.

The case file paints a picture of a mother determined to thwart caseworkers' efforts to intervene. Berry told Cobb County DFCS workers she had left Michigan to escape the prying of child protection workers there.

Sometimes, the Cobb DFCS file reveals, she yelled at caseworkers; other times she simply refused to answer the door or pick up the phone.

When she did talk to officials, Berry made a point of telling them that Markea had been born prematurely and with a mental disability. She described her daughter as unruly — complaining, for instance, that she opened and ate food in stores.

The children, who were homeschooled, told caseworkers they were not supposed to talk to outsiders, especially social workers.

Berry told a detective after Markea died that she had known her daughter was getting worse, the file reveals. But the mother said she had not sought medical attention for her out of fears that outsiders would criticize her for the girl's condition.

In the end, it appears that Berry was simply better at repelling officials' scrutiny than they were at protecting her daughter.

"No matter how intimidating a person is, the caseworker's ultimate responsibility is to make sure the child is safe," Scroggy said.

Melissa Carter, the former state Child Advocate, described the state's handling of Markea's case "shocking."

Even leaving aside the agency's legal responsibilities, if a caseworker suspects that a child is not being fed, "it's hard to imagine there wouldn't be some follow up, from the human standpoint, just to have some peace of mind," said Carter, now the executive director of Emory Law's Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

"It's a horrendous case," agreed Alice McQuade of the advocacy group Better Courts for Kids. "It's just so hard, the idea of her slowly starving to death."

But in one sense, McQuade said, the case is not unique: The family's last contact with DFCS came at a time when agency policy was to trim caseloads. It did so, in part, by referring hundreds of troubled families to community resources such as social services or medical providers rather than taking children into custody.

Markea's case is a tragic outcome of that strategy, known as "diversion,"McQuade said.

"Obviously Markea Berry was not a case appropriate for diversion. Clearly she should have been removed," she said, adding that she fears there are other stories like Markea's that have yet to surface.

Scroggy, who wasn't DFCS director in 2010, agreed that diversion was the wrong choice in this instance. "In hindsight, it would have been better if it was an investigation," he said.

On June 15 of this year, Berry called police to report that she had discovered her daughter unresponsive. Officers who went to the house found the girl's body lying on a mattress on the floor, but they suspected that it had been moved there.

Under questioning, Berry admitted that she had waited at least an hour to call police; her excuse was that she had taken time first to attend to her younger children, one of whom is an infant. (The case file is unclear as to whether Markea had two or three siblings.)

Investigators found that Berry had often locked Markea in her bedroom at night with "pee pads" and a urinal. The mother said it was to prevent others from entering the girl's room.

Sgt. Dana Pierce, spokesman for the Cobb County Police Department, said the homicide unit is still investigating the case. Autopsy results are pending. Berry's other children have been taken into DFCS custody.

"Obviously this child fell through the cracks," said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children.

Sadly, he said, some abusive parents are adept at fending off the state's efforts to intervene on behalf of their children.

"Many of these people who regularly interact with the agency, they know the system better than the caseworkers," Adams said.

In Markea's case, he said, agency workers "went in and saw red flags and did nothing about it."