Emani Moss, shown in an undated photo provided by her grandmother, was the subject of a child abuse report but state workers didn't investigate before she was killed.

Georgia child abuse investigations to become more rigorous

Georgia’s child protection agency already had investigated four reports alleging abuse of a little girl named Emani Moss. The most recent had led to her stepmother’s conviction on a child cruelty charge. Yet in 2012, when the agency received another allegation that Emani had been beaten with a belt, caseworkers didn’t question the girl’s parents. They didn’t talk to Emani or check her for injuries. They made no direct contact with any member of Emani’s demonstrably dangerous family.

Emani’s burned, emaciated body turned up in a metal trash can outside her family’s Lawrenceville apartment in November 2013. Apparently starved, she weighed just 32 pounds. She was 10 years old.

Now, more than two years later, the state Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS, is changing how it assesses maltreatment reports like the one in 2012 that warned of the dangers facing Emani.

Agency workers will no longer decide whether such reports warrant investigations based solely on information gathered over the telephone. No case will be assigned a less-serious, lower-priority status until a caseworker meets a child who allegedly has been victimized, DFCS Director Bobby Cagle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

This new approach, which will be phased in statewide over the next year, represents a monumental shift in how DFCS conducts its business. For the past decade, workers could relegate cases to “family support” or “diversion” status after merely reviewing information phoned in by people who suspected a child had been abused or neglected. In those cases, parents may have been offered counseling or asked to attend classes, but caseworkers would not always visit the family home to investigate.

Screening cases by phone became common as DFCS struggled with budget cuts and, for a time, followed a philosophy that favored leaving children with their families except under the direst circumstances. Now, Cagle said, the agency plans to deploy caseworkers in virtually every case, raising the prospect of greater government intrusion into families that may or not may not be guilty of maltreatment.

The new practice will further stress a workforce that is 20 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago. Heavy caseloads and relatively low starting salaries — $28,000 to $32,000 — have contributed to what Cagle described as a debilitating turnover rate of 36 percent.

But child-protection experts say the more aggressive approach is necessary to ensure children’s safety.

“There’s no way you can determine what other alternative services you might use unless you see the child,” said Janet Oliva, who was the DFCS director from 2003 to 2004.

During her tenure, Oliva said, the agency sent caseworkers to meet with every child named in a maltreatment report. “If you don’t see the child and see the family and see the home, you cannot make an assessment,” she said.

DFCS has evolved from its family-preservation bias in the years since Emani Moss’ death. The agency fired two workers and punished four others involved in her case. Emani’s father, Eman Moss, pleaded guilty to murder last year and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. Her stepmother, Tiffany Moss, is scheduled to stand trial for murder later this year.

Changing DFCS’ practices, Cagle said, will require fully staffing caseworker positions and giving new methods time to take hold. The agency has asked the Georgia General Assembly to approve the hiring of 175 caseworkers, partly to perform the new initial screenings, partly to reduce existing caseloads.

“This is a multi-year effort; this is not a quick fix,” Cagle said. But without a long-term strategy, he said, “you’re never going to get to the heart of the problems.”

This story was first published on The Watchdog blog. For other investigative news, go to investigations.blog.ajc.com.

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