ATLANTA --The House unanimously passed a bill to change the way a child's death is investigated and how much information about their lifeand DFCS involvement in it,can be released to the public. It is now in the hands of the Senate.
Supporters say the Office of the Child Advocate, which currently leads the investigations, doesn't have enough staff or the law enforcement power to get to the heart of what happened.
The bill sponsor also believes to hold those involved in the child's life accountable and discusspotential policy or procedural changes necessary,it's important for the community to understand what happened.
According to DFCS reports,of the 213 childrenthat diedwith a DFCS case history in the past two years, the state has no idea what killed 62 of them.116 deaths are ruled natural or accidental. But 11Alive questions how many of those deathsreally stemmed from preventable neglect or abuse.
That's why in November reporter Rebecca Lindstrom requested the case summary of every one of those 213 deaths. Three months later we're still missing 94 of them. But even with the records received, there's no shortage on what we can learn.
The files areso heavily redacted, there's no name, age, most don't even say how these children died. So our staff had to pour through them, literally reading between the lines, calling local communities, coroners and families. What we learned, shocked even us.
In the reports, we found names ripped from the news. Stories we covered that captured our hearts. Names like Hannah Truelove. A 16 year old found murdered in the woods near her home. Her case remains unsolved, but her DFCS file is filled with pleas for help.
At least three times, someone requested she be put in protective custody. There was a report of emotional abuse, skipping school, and locking herself in her bedroom at night.
In Rockdale Countythe community rallied after four children from the Glass family were found dead inside. Beforehand, DFCS substantiated reports of abandonment an inadequate supervision. For a time, they even lived in foster care. But no one was watching when one of the children started playing with a lighter.
In Atlanta, 12-year old Demiya Griffin and her mom were killed by her stepfather. Shot to death in their home. According to her DFCS case summary,a caseworker was set to meet with the family to deal with their "inability to resolve conflict" when she died.
We took all of thereports we received to Melissa Carter and Tom Rawlings. Both attorneys. Both former directors of the Office of the Child Advocate.
In reviewing the reports, we learned at least 33 of the childrenwere beaten or shot, most police say, by a parent now behind bars. At least 10 of the children died, despite pleas to a judge to get them out of danger.
"There are a lot of time in this work that you have to make a judgment call based on your experience, and sometimes that judgment is wrong and you have to face up to that," said Tom Rawlings, who also served as a juvenile court judge.
Carter says in some cases, the problem goes even deeper.
"We have a judge that doesn't trust the case worker. We certainly have a problem system wide in an erosion of public confidence in the system."
Three of the children who were ordered into protective custody, died anyway. They were killed before someone came to take them out of their home.
"We see the same patterns in these families as we do in domestic violence situations where there's a lot of tension, obviously there's a lot of risk," said Carter.
But for dozens of these children, their deaths remain a mystery. Five month old Nicholas Womack's mother was arrested after he was found, his skin eaten off by bugs and rats. But his cause of death, is still listed, as unknown.
For many of the children who died there was no autopsy. No criminal investigation. Just a life lost in black ink.
"At the end of the day, systems get the outcomes that they are designed to produce," said Carter.