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Walker County child abuse case prompts state-wide changes to DFCS operations

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WALKER COUNTY, GA (WRCB) -

State -wide changes are coming to the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services after a Lafayette child abuse case raised red flags. Channel 3 launched an investigation earlier this year after elementary school teachers told Lafayette police they had made at least 13 calls for help to Walker County DFCS. In January, police found the special needs boy with severe bruising.

Channel 3 sat down with the whistle-blower in the case earlier this year. Following our reports, Director Kimberly Gravitz was removed from her post at the Walker County DFCS office. State officials have since created a specialized team to review why it took so long for this little boy to get help. That review process is now being used to make sure no case of child abuse is ignored again.
             
The 9-year-old boy was beaten and bruised, he told police he was forced to eat scraps from a trashcan. Officers noted bruises all over his body. They could see his rib-cage and put him into emergency custody, along with four other children living there. Two guardians were arrested and charged with felony cruelty to children charges. The story hit home for one Chanel 3 Viewer and former Walker County DFCS investigator. She asked us to protect her identity. 

"Something has got to be done, because the next step a child could be killed," said Former DFCS Caseworker. 

The department whistle-blower told Channel 3 that case workers weren't properly trained. She said caseworkers were encouraged to clear cases instead of investigate them.

 "To me it felt like the whole point was to close cases and not help these families." Reporter: " How many cases would you say are similar to this one, having multiple calls?" Former Investigator: "The majority of cases have multiple calls. I mean I've had to close cases. That one in particular I just felt was so wrong and the only reason that it was getting closed was because the director was like, 'okay we're closing it.'"

Those claims that got the attention of DFCS Director Bobby Cagle. 

"That is exactly not what we want done. We want to make sure people are fully trained. I think what you need to understand is that we were in a period where this agency was in pure crisis," said Cagle. 

Cagle launched a review of the Walker County office. His team found poor communication among the staff, poor community relationships and a high turnover rate.They also discovered case workers were assigned too many cases, with some working as many as 50 at a time.

" Again only 60 percent of the staff that we needed to do the work and so unfortunately people feeling the need to get someone out very quickly pulled people that were not fully trained in certain circumstances not just in Walker county but in other counties across the state," said Cagle. "We have begun to revamp our training program entirely and now we are working very intently on the turn over issue which is at 36 percent over the last 2 years and that's not tenable going forward," said Cagle. 

It's a realization that has prompted the state to add 450 positions state-wide. The state's Robust Workforce Development plan calls for no more than 15 case loads per worker by 2017. That would amount to a 70 percent decrease in case loads in Walker County, where a new interim director has been named. Teresa Hughes now leads the Walker county office. She and state officials have reviewed all active and closed cases.

"They did a thorough exhaustive review of all cases to make sure we had the correct kind of work going on," said Cagle. "We have seen tremendous drop off in the number of complaints. I have not received any from community folks and we've had a couple of case related concerns, she's handled those very effectively."

Cagle says he can't talk about specific cases due to child privacy, but a handful of cases needed to be revisited.  Walker County now has three goals and it starts with communication. DFCS hopes to increase child safety by changing how case workers first approach families in crisis. 

"The first thing we want them to know is we're here to support families not to break families apart," said Cagle. 

The office is also working to increase the number of staff. Walker County DFCS has hired 3 people since July. 
    
"The help is on the way, the fact that we have invested over $22 million dollars in the last 16 months in additional caseworkers is very important," said Cagle. 

The department also hopes to build on community relationships so the next time a school staff calls with a claim, they know it will be looked into. 

"I want people reaching out to us because we need to get in and understand what's going on so we can do better going forward," said Cagle. 

 For now surrounding counties have been asked to assist Walker County with their case loads to cut down on the average numbers of cases assigned to one case worker. This year's review was the beginning of many to come. As for the little boy whose case prompted this state-wide change -- we're told he is doing well.

Interim Director Teresa Hughes has identified a critical need for foster parents in Walker County. There are 140 kids with only 14 active foster homes currently. Walker County DFCS has increased by 30 kids, taken into custody since May. The interim director would like to see at least 40 more foster homes to make a difference. 

In addition to foster parents, DFCS is in need of adoptive resources, especially for sibling groups and older children.

"We also need people who will sponsor children for Christmas," said Hughes. "They can ask to sponsor a specific child or they can make donations, including monetary donations that we can use to ensure all of our children have a good Christmas."

To contact the Walker County DFCS office, call 706-375-0769.


FIRST ON 3:  The director of Walker County Division of Family and Children Services has been removed from the job.  

The move comes after Channel 3 uncovered child abuse that went undetected, despite several calls for help.  

Lafayette Police found a 9-year- old special needs boy in bad shape after school officials tried getting help from DFCS first.

Officers noted bruises all over his body. They could see his rib-cage and put him into emergency custody, along with four other children living here. The guardians were arrested.  

The story hit home for one Channel 3 viewer and former Walker County DFCS investigator. She's asked us to protect her identity.  

"I was disgusted and heartbroken because I had seen the name before," said Former DFCS Investigator.

According to the police report, teachers suspected abuse as early as October of 2014 and reported it to Walker County DFCS more than 13 times. It took calling the police for the boy to get help.  

In a three-month investigation, Channel 3 wanted to know why it took 13 referrals. So Channel 3 invited the State Director of DFCS to our studio. He says while, 13 is a number that should raise red flags, sometimes calls are screened out due to lack of information.  

"It has to fit our definition of abuse meaning that there has been an  injury inflicted on the child or neglect which means that some substantial responsibility of the parents is not being carried through, which could be making sure the child is being cared for by an adult who is keeping the child from danger," said Bobby Cagle, DFCS State Director.  

Child abuse is reported somewhere in Georgia every 14 minutes.  Severe cases get a response within 24 hours, others can take five days. Once a case is assigned to case manager, they have about a 45 day time table to find a solution.  

"To me, I felt the whole point was to close the cases and not help these families," said Former DFCS Investigator.

"This is troubling to hear, I don't know what time frame your talking about, but I can tell you this since the day I came I have never spoken about closing over due cases without closing remarks by saying never close a case unless it's completely finished and never close a case that has concern for safety for a child," said Cagle.  

It takes weeks of training to be able to tell the difference between abuse and discipline and to identify sexual abuse.  

All case managers and supervisors are supposed to be certified.  

"You can have a tail-end that's black and purple from getting the tar beat out of you and then it's on their rear so it's not considered abuse," said Former DFCS Investigator.  

"There are multiple times not just myself but other workers we had been sent out without training," said Former DFCS Investigator.

This former worker claims there was a culture in Walker County to close cases as soon as possible.  

During Channel 3's investigation, the woman in charge of the Walker County DFCS office was removed.  

"We made a decision as a management team based upon a number of things, including concern from the community that we needed to go in a different direction with our management team there in Walker County," said Cagle.  

"Something has got to be done because the next step a child could be killed," said Former DFCS Investigator.

Our calls to Walker County Former DFCS Director have not been returned.


PREVIOUS STORY: The director of Walker County Department of Family and Child Services has been removed from her position.  

Bobby Cagle, the Director of Georgia Department of Family and Child Services, tells Channel 3 an interim director is now reviewing all of the open cases under former director Kimberlee Gravitz' leadership in Walker County. 

Officials say an investigation was launched into the department after several calls and complaints were made about the director. 

Channel 3 launched an investigation last October, after an arrest affidavit obtained by Channel 3, stated that in one case at least 13 calls alleging child abuse had been made to Walker county DFCS since October 22, 2014.

The calls for help concerned a special needs nine-year-old child. 

Teachers called Lafayette police to investigate after the child was removed from school. 

Officers who responded to the call, noted in their report seeing obvious signs of abuse, malnourishment and neglect. According to police, the boy had visible bruising to head, face, back and neck area. 

Other children in the home told police the special needs boy was only allowed to eat “slop” from the trash can. 

Officers removed the boy along with 4 other children living in the home. The boy's legal guardian Shirley Chandler and her son Richard Voivedich now face felony cruelty to children charges.


PREVIOUS STORY: According to a recent police report, it took a school 13 times reporting possible child abuse to get a 9-year-old into state custody.

The child's teachers told police they had reported the abuse to the Department of Family and Children Services several times since November. The child was taken into custody in January after police were called to do a welfare check.

Teachers said they became concerned when the little boy's siblings confessed that the 9-year-old was forced to eat family leftovers and whipped for eating other food. Officers noted in their report seeing bruises on the boy's face, head, neck, chest and thighs.



"When they made contact with him, they could tell he had been abused. He had bruises about his body, on his chest cavity and on his face," said Capt. Meeks, Lafayette Police Dept. "From what we were told there was at least a dozen or so complaints already made on this child."

Georgia receives a child abuse tip every 14 minutes but not every tip warrants a mandatory investigation.

In this case, Channel 3 wanted to know why it took 13 referrals. Privacy laws kept DFCS from answering our questions about this specific case. Department heads did tell us that cases with excessive complaints do get a closer look.

Officials took the boy and 4 other children into emergency custody, January 26th. Teachers suspected abuse as early as November. School officials stated they made at least 13 referrals to the Department of Family and Child Services to investigate. However - it was not until the school called police in January that the boy got some help. His legal guardian Shirley Chandler and her son Richard Voivedich now face felony Cruelty to Children Charges.

The law requires all teachers to immediately report suspected abuse to their supervisor. Director of Student Services, Chris Chambers tells Channel 3 school policy says they call a state hotline first. Police are notified if the child is believed to be in immediate danger.

"Anytime we suspect a student is in immediate danger we are going to call police," said Chris Chambers, Director of Student Services, Walker County Schools.

Each referral goes through a screening process. DFCS officials said reports can get kicked out for not meeting certain criteria or if there is too little information.

"The Department of Family and Children's Services has perimeters.  They can't immediately just go in and remove a child, they have criteria that has to be met in order for them to take action," said Chambers.

If DFCS agents are assigned to a case, officials say they're required by federal law to work to unify the family until all efforts are exhausted. Foster care is used a last resort.

"If you suspect child abuse then you need to notify law enforcement or your local Department of Family and Children Services as soon as possible and get the ball rolling," said Meeks. "If a referral is passed through the state's screening and assigned to an investigator, it will be categorized as an investigation of abuse or a family support case.

In active investigations agents will pay a visit to the home within 24 hours, followed by monthly visits and a plan of action for the family to make changes.

If it is a family support case, agents have to respond within 5 days.

If an agent believes a child is in immediate danger, the department does have the authorities to remove that child immediately.

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