The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services says it’s making some changes to how it investigates abuse claims, after the death of a 10-year-old Lawrenceville girl prompted questions about its current policies. As heard on the radio
DFCS Director Sharon Hill says in light of the Emani Moss case, the division is reviewing claims that were reviewed over the phone, or “screened out,” with little to no investigation. She says the division is also consulting with both internal and external officials who aren’t directly involved in open cases to make sure nothing is looked over.
“From the information that we’re gaining in this case and other cases, we will be making systemic reforms necessary to ensure that our system is doing what it’s supposed to do to protect children,” Hill said.
Emani’s body was found Nov. 2 inside a trash can and badly burned – though investigators say she died earlier that week from starvation. Her father, Eman Moss, and stepmother, Tiffany Moss, were charged with felony murder, first degree cruelty to a child and concealing a body.
Governor Nathan Deal says his office is talking with DFCS about how to prevent future deaths, but defended the department’s case workers.
“They only can take a judgment based on past experiences and things that they observe,” Deal said. “It depends on people reporting things, and I think sometimes there’s a reluctance of people to feel like they’re interfering unduly.”
But a heavily redacted DFCS case file shows the agency received two reports in recent years of possible abuse and screened out those reports over the phone. In May 2012, school officials reported Emani had been hit with a belt on her back and head. According to the documents, Emani told school officials the beating occurred because she was eating her breakfast too slowly. She also complained her leg hurt, but said she had slipped on the bathroom floor. Emani was observed to have another injury, the details of which were redacted from the case file. DFCS screened out the report as “no maltreatment alleged.” The injury was “identified as insignificant and determined to be corporal punishment.”
In August of this year, DFCS received a tip from an anonymous reporter, who said Emani seemed distant and suspected the girl was being neglected. That report was screened out within 24 hours “due to having no current address and no current maltreatment”; the reporter hadn’t seen in the family in more than three months.
Those reports were screened out despite a previous finding in May 2010 by DFCS that Emani had been abused, after the girl’s school reported signs of physical abuse and that Emani was scared to go home because she’d received poor grades. Emani was temporarily removed from her father and stepmother’s custody and placed in “a safety resource center” while the two took parenting and anger management classes. Emani was eventually placed back with her father and stepmother after DFCS determined the two “made significant positive changes.” The case was closed in November 2010.
In 2008, DFCS received a report that Emani may have been sexually abused, though the identity of the reporter is unclear. The reporter asked Emani if anyone was bothering her in an inappropriate manner, and she replied, “If I tell anyone, then I would not be able to see you anymore.” DFCS officials met with Emani at school and spoke with a teacher, but “no concerns were noted about the child.” The claim was assigned as “diversion,” meaning DFCS provided the family with outside services, as the situation did not call for a full-scale assessment and intervention due to the absence of maltreatment concerns.
Reports of neglect were also filed in 2003 and 2005, both of which were found “unsubstantiated” and ultimately closed.
Hill says prior case history is taken into account when a report comes in.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur called Emani’s death “preventable” – and called for legislative action.
“When you have convictions, when you have substantiation, I believe the policy must be that you see the child directly and not screen the case out over the phone,” Oliver said.
Oliver says she’s confident the issue will be discussed in the upcoming legislative session.