Heritage House, a Powder Springs group home run by a faith-based charity in Cobb County under contract with two state agencies, bears no blame in the May escape of three teenage girls, a state investigation concluded. The girls were later abused at a house nearby. KENT D. JOHNSON /KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Georgia finds no fault with group home after girls’ escape, assault

The group home from which three teenage girls escaped, only to be sexually assaulted by a gang of men they met nearby, bears no blame in the episode, a state investigation has concluded.

Officials imposed no penalties on Heritage House, run by a faith-based charity in Cobb County under contract with two state agencies. Instead, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) made the facility eligible to again take in girls who have been declared wards of the state. Officials had suspended placements of children in the home after the May 26 escape and sexual assault.

“They did everything they could have done to protect these children,” said Ashley Fielding, a DFCS spokeswoman.

But why the agency absolved the facility is far from clear.

DFCS lawyers blacked out large sections of a report on the investigation, citing a state law that considers “each and every record concerning reports of child abuse” to be confidential.

The lawyers redacted not only information identifying the girls, who were ages 14, 15 and 16, but also most details of how officials conducted the inquiry. For example, they blacked out all of a five-paragraph statement by the group home.

However, a public portion of the report says that — without investigation — DFCS decided the girls experienced no maltreatment at the home.

The agency closed the maltreatment case as a “screen out,” the report says. That means either that a report was deemed too vague to investigate or that, even if true, allegations did not constitute a violation of laws or rules.

No investigators interviewed the girls who escaped, officials said. But case workers who have spoken to the girls would report any allegations they made about abuse or neglect in the group home.

According to public records, the girls escaped by distracting a Heritage House staff member — the only one on duty — and bolting out the front door. The girls walked to a Wal-Mart store, where they met a group of six men who took them to a residence around the corner from their group home. The men gave the girls marijuana and alcohol, one girl’s mother said last month, and the girls later told the police that the men took turns sexually assaulting them until the next afternoon. The police arrested one man on child-molestation charges. The other five, some of whom may have been juveniles, have not been publicly identified.

Heritage House, which belongs to a nonprofit called Light of Hope and Love Inc., is a “transitional living” program for older teenagers who need skills for independent living, said Dianne Kelly, DFCS’ foster care services director. The home, in a residential neighborhood, is not a secure facility, and residents are not locked indoors, Kelly said.

The facility, which is licensed to house as many as six children between 6 and 18 years old, collected $173,000 in state payments in 2014. Its chief executive declined an interview request Thursday.

Although cleared in the escape investigation, Heritage House still has no residents. But the DFCS report says the facility hopes to change its licensing status — it wants to offer more intensive services than currently allowed.

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