Neglected in life, unnoticed in death: Few children’s deaths spark public outrage

Changes promised after scrutiny of system

This fall, Georgia’s perpetually troubled child-protection system found itself under the most intense scrutiny in more than a decade. Two highly publicized abuse cases in metro Atlanta and a series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed systemic failures to protect Georgia children from abuse and neglect. So for the first time in several years, state officials are proposing major changes:

  • Gov. Nathan Deal said he will seek a cash infusion for the Division of Family and Children's Services — $27 million over the next three years to hire more than 500 new caseworkers and supervisors. The child-protection workforce would increase by 26 percent. Aides to Deal said the governor wanted to make up for some of the agency's budget cuts during the economic downturn of recent years.
  • The General Assembly will consider a bill in 2014 to increase public access to information about children who die despite DFCS intervention in their families. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, would remove some confidentiality provisions from state law that shield details about children, their families and their histories with DFCS. As the Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month, redactions from DFCS files frustrate attempts to assess the agency's performance in abuse and neglect cases. Oliver's bill also would move the state Child Fatality Review Panel into the Department of Public Health. The panel, which examines suspicious or unexplained deaths, now falls under the state child advocate's office, which is part of the governor's office.
  • DFCS is reviewing cases it previously "screened out" — that is, closed without investigation, usually over the telephone — in the past year. Beginning in 2014, an external panel will review random samples of cases and flag those that should have received more attention.    

How we got the story

This article is part of a series examining failures in Georgia’s child-protection system. Earlier articles looked at the inadequate investigations of many deaths, the damaging effects of the state’s attempts to reduce foster care rolls, and the culture of secrecy that prevents assessments of how well the system works.

For today’s article, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution studied child-death records from state agencies. Details about Ziyon Green also came from interviews and from a Georgia State Patrol report.

No one held a candlelight vigil for Ziyon Green.

No one marched for justice in her name. No one sponsored legislation to protect other children from a fate like hers. There will be no Ziyon’s Law.

The 3-year-old’s death last year barely registered outside her small community in east Georgia. Compared to the child abuse victims whose tragic lives and horrific deaths are so often chronicled in news reports, it almost seemed as if Ziyon never existed.

And yet, the way she died represents a more prevalent threat for Georgia children than the physical abuse that engrosses and outrages the public and inspires calls for reform.

Negligence by parents or other caregivers caused or contributed to about 40 percent of the children’s deaths reported to a state review panel in 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Only one-third as many deaths, about 13 percent, occurred in abuse cases and other homicides combined.

Year after year, Georgia records more children’s deaths per capita from maltreatment than almost any other state. But much of that dubious distinction arises from neglect cases. Federal statistics show that a greater proportion of children’s deaths in Georgia are attributed to neglect than in 35 other states and the District of Columbia.

Abuse deaths draw more attention, however, as two recent similar but unrelated cases in metro Atlanta demonstrate. Eric Forbes, 12, who was beaten to death, and Emani Moss, 10, who was starved and burned, became public symbols of the failings of Georgia’s child-protection system. Four state workers lost their jobs and four others were punished for failing to investigate abuse reports involving the two children. Authorities filed murder charges against Eric’s father and against Emani’s father and stepmother.

But many neglect victims also died after mistakes or oversights by state child-welfare workers. Disciplinary action against workers is rare in neglect cases, and few of those deaths resulted in criminal charges.

These children suffocated in bed beneath intoxicated or drug-impaired parents. They died in house fires while home alone. They shot themselves with loaded handguns their parents left unsecured. In Paulding County, a 4-year-old with Down Syndrome died of asphyxiation after she became wedged between a dresser and a wall. Her father was supposed to supervise the girl but wanted to play video games; he told his 6-year-old son to watch her, but the boy got distracted by gaming, too. An hour passed before they found the girl’s body.

Neglect victims, according to state child-death reports, tend to be infants or toddlers from poor families. Their parents often are young and lack education, with low-paying jobs or no jobs at all. A thread of substance abuse — methamphetamine, Oxycontin, alcohol — courses through dozens of cases, as does a history of abuse and neglect.

Three-month-old Nevaeh Rebecca Hughes lived with her mother, an unemployed, 25-year-old high school dropout with two other children. According to a report by officials in Butts County, the mother had been abused as a child. She drank heavily and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day during pregnancy. She had a history of abusing cocaine, marijuana, opiates and prescription drugs. The night of March 12, 2012, she was “drug-impaired,” the report said, when she fed the baby apple juice before taking her to bed. When the mother awoke, Nevaeh — “heaven” spelled backward — was dead. An autopsy could not determine the cause of death.

Such cases are surprisingly common.

“This is the underlying ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’ stuff — not taking care of the child the way it needs to be taken care of,” said Burke County Coroner Susan Salemi, who investigated Ziyon Green’s death. “This is where children are slipping through the cracks.”

Ziyon, who was born deaf and mute, lived just outside Waynesboro, about 30 miles south of Augusta, in a rented house 50 feet off a busy two-lane highway. For a child lacking adult supervision, the road proved irresistibly alluring.


She was born on a Christmas Eve, a profound gift to her 16-year-old mother and her family.

“She just lit up my life forever,” Ziyon Green’s aunt, Sharice Wade, would later tell an Augusta television station, WXFG. “I’m always going to remember my baby. My baby.”

Ziyon’s uncle, Anthony Wade, told the same station: “I just wish I could hold her, pet her, ask her if she’s OK. She’s always my baby.”

Ziyon was 18 months old when authorities in Burke County first saw that some adults who seemed to adore the child didn’t always take care of her.

About 1 p.m. on June 25, 2010, a police officer came across Ziyon and other toddlers playing in the street in front of their house in Waynesboro. The officer later reported that the only adult at home was inside, sleeping. Older children were responsible for the younger ones outside.

Other adults came home a few minutes after the officer arrived, and their presence convinced him that no criminal charges were warranted. His report concluded, “This was a one-time incident.”

Nevertheless, four months later, the state’s Division of Family and Children’s Services opened its own investigation. The results are not entirely clear; the agency redacted key details before releasing a case summary.

However, the summary said the agency “did not identify any health issues with the home” and did not substantiate allegations that a child was “dirty and unkempt.”

Rather than close the case immediately, a DFCS worker instead assigned it to a status called “diversion.” In diversion, DFCS would offer assistance that a family might need — parenting classes, for example, or a food-stamp application — but would not conduct an extensive investigation. Unlike a full investigation, diversion did not require caseworkers to return to check on the children’s well being.

For much of the past decade, DFCS prodded caseworkers to put fewer children in foster care while assigning more families to the diversion program. Consequently, Georgia’s foster rolls declined by nearly half from 2004 to 2012. Only two states recorded greater decreases.

But as fewer children entered foster care, the number who died after their families had contact with DFCS appeared to rise. (DFCS has said that annual death totals from recent years are not necessarily comparable.) In 2012, 152 children died despite DFCS intervention.

Half came from families that had been placed in diversion or a similar program.

In the summary it released of Ziyon’s case, DFCS deleted references to the services it offered or provided to her family. On Nov. 24, 2010, 32 days after the investigation began, an agency worker marked Ziyon’s case closed.

A busy road

The house that Ziyon and her mother moved into in early 2012 sits beside Georgia Highway 56, just north of the Waynesboro city limits. The state highway department says that, on average, 4,440 vehicles pass each day. The speed limit is 55.

As many as 13 people stayed at the five-bedroom brick house. No doors separated the rooms, just sheets hanging from the frames. The interior was dark and cluttered, Salemi said. The back door wouldn’t open because so many boxes had been stacked up in the kitchen.

Many details about the morning of March 8, 2012, remain unclear, despite investigations by the police, DFCS and a child fatality review panel. Among the uncertainties are who was in the house and, more important, who was supposed to be watching Ziyon and another child.

This much is known:

About 9 o’clock, no adults were present, or at least none was awake, to stop Ziyon and the other child, possibly her cousin, from leaving the house. The other child apparently watched from the front yard as Ziyon crossed the road to the parking lot of the Waynesboro Church of God.

Ziyon turned back almost immediately, two witnesses later told the Georgia State Patrol.

At that moment, a tractor-trailer loaded with logs approached from the south. The driver, Gerald Dean Fordham, 43, of Dexter, Ga., saw the girl and hit the brakes.

Ziyon kept coming from his left.

Fordham steered toward the right shoulder. But there wasn’t enough room — Ziyon ran directly into the first set of wheels on Fordham’s trailer.

Two more sets of wheels crushed Ziyon before Fordham could stop. Fordham was not injured, and police filed no charges against him. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

Ziyon died instantly of blunt force trauma, Salemi said. No autopsy was necessary, she said.

When cameras from Augusta’s television stations arrived, family members spoke with deep affection for the deceased child.

Ziyon’s aunt: “She was the best little girl in the world, the sweetest you would ever meet.”

Her grandmother, Sylvia Wade: “She was very active — a beautiful, smart little girl.”

But Ziyon’s great-grandmother, Mary Frances Nair, interviewed on WRDW-TV, raised the same questions that gnawed at Salemi:

“I wish to God I knew how it happened,” Nair said. “How did she get to that road and how did she get to that truck? How did she not see that truck?”

Pointed questions

Shaniqua Wade came home shortly after the accident.

Ziyon's mother said she had run an errand at the drugstore and had asked another adult in the house to watch Ziyon while she was away. But a DFCS report said other residents told police they didn't know where Wade was when the accident happened.

Authorities began asking more pointed questions about where Wade had been and how long she had been away. She became “hostile and arrogant,” the DFCS report said, and blew cigarette smoke in Salemi’s face.

Recent attempts to reach Wade by telephone and by email were not successful.

After the accident, the DFCS report said, one of Ziyon’s relatives apparently was so upset as to need sedation. The agency offered grief counseling to the girl’s family.

But Salemi said that, given the circumstances, some of the adults living with Ziyon were oddly composed. Some were entwined with each other on sofas and chairs, kissing, while authorities moved about the house.

DFCS workers apparently found the reaction strange, as well.

The agency’s report said workers could not establish a clear timeline of the accident and couldn’t even interview all the adults who might have known what happened. One of the “primary caretakers,” the report said, “left home after the incident occurred.”

DFCS concluded that the adults had provided “inadequate supervision.”

‘A lot of talk’

Two days before Christmas last year, authorities in Towns County allege, Amanda Faith Dickert put her son to bed and did not check on him for nine hours. Cody Michael Wheeler, 14, had cerebral palsy and had experienced a seizure the previous night. When his mother went to his room at 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve, he was dead, apparently from another seizure. Dickert faces child cruelty and deprivation charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

Such cases are rare. Authorities filed criminal charges in just 5 percent of child-neglect deaths reported to the state in 2012, according to the Journal-Constitution’s analysis. Most investigations end with no action.

Ziyon Green’s case would be no different.

The state patrol addressed only what happened in the middle of the highway. It did not investigate how Ziyon got outside, why she crossed the road, or why she ran back into the truck’s path.

DFCS concluded that “there was no adult supervision” and “no committed oversight of the children.” It also said the house was “small for the number of people living there” amid oppressive clutter.

Still, the agency’s report said without explanation, the house was “deemed safe” for other children after Ziyon died.

Burke County’s child fatality review committee conducted the final inquiry into Ziyon’s death. State law mandates that each county create such a body — composed of coroners, police, prosecutors, child-protection workers and other officials — to look at children’s deaths from maltreatment or under unusual circumstances. On May 21, 2012, more than two months after Ziyon died, Burke County’s committee convened.

The committee approved a report that said "acts of omission or commission" contributed to the death — specifically, "poor/absent supervision." The report cited a pattern of such lapses.

In light of the earlier neglect case, “there was a lot of talk” about seeking criminal charges, said Salemi, a member of the committee. But prosecutors decided against trying to make a case against Ziyon’s mother.

Greg Newsome, a district attorney’s investigator who is a member of the fatality review committee, said he could not recall why his office didn’t pursue charges. But he said the committee’s role is not to decide which cases deserve prosecution.

None of the group’s recommendations “carries any weight,” Newsome said. “It’s more like a statistical meeting than an investigative meeting.”

Salemi, a registered nurse for 40 years, spent more than a decade as a criminal investigator, specializing in domestic violence cases and crimes against children. She still considers Ziyon’s death, as well as its aftermath, to be particularly troublesome.

“Something,” she said, “should have been done.”