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Children who were supposed to be protected

7:38 PM, Feb 28, 2014   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- First there was Eric Forbes -- a 12-year-old police say died after being beaten so badly by his father, his body simply gave up. Then, Emani Moss -- a little girl with a heartwarming smile, found stuffed and burned in a trash can. They were deaths that outraged us - and the community.

11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom has spent the past four months fighting to learn more about the system that was supposed to protect them.

To do that, we wanted to look at why children were dying and how decisions were being made. So we requested the case summaries of every child that had died since 2012 with a DFCS history.

The first request was made November 11, 2013. To this day, there are still 94 case reports missing -- that's 94 children by their own records, who died and we have no explanation for how or why.

What they have given us is broken in bits, redacted with line after line of black ink.

Even attorney Tom Rawlings, former director of the Office of the Child Advocate, the watchdog agency for DFCS, says he can't make much of the reports. 

"My first reaction is how on earth are you supposed to make any sense of this," said Rawlings. "It really conflicts with the federal rules that the state is required to follow in these cases."

Even Melissa Carter, an attorney who helped draft the state law that allowed for the redactions, says what we received was never the intent.

"Some of this I can tell you is redacted because there may be criminal investigations that could be jeopardized by the disclosure of this information," Carter said. "At the same time, some of this just goes so far, when you see line after line of complete black out and you have nothing left but pronouns and conjunctions."

A copy of one report given to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution certainly provides more clues as to what happened to 4-year old Jeremiah Tucker. Doctors said his asthma was so severe and his family incapable of caring for him, that he was "at risk of death" if they sent him home. DFCS did it anyway. A hard truth you'd never learn from the report we received.  It's the same file, just covered in more black ink.

In a meeting with DFCS Director Sharon Hill, her communications staff told us they had nothing to do with how the reports were redacted and that this was a legal matter with DHS.

"Our desire is to be as transparent as possible," Hill said. "This may be as transparent as our law allows us to be."

In a written statement, a spokes person for DHS said:

"The Georgia Department of Human Services releases information related to child abuse and deprivation records in accordance with federal and
state law.

The Open Records Act, Georgia's Sunshine Law, found at O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70, et.seq, requires state agencies to cite the applicable law when limiting the release of requested information. When redactions are necessary, they are made in accordance with the applicable laws and are noted by the Department in the individual responses to open records requests."

11Alive was told the version we received, was the correct way the information should have been released.  We see it as a perfect example of how that law is up to interpretation, by whomever holds the black pen.

Even with all this ink, we're still missing half the case file. That's 94 children dead, with no explanations as to whether anything could have been done to save them. To get that, DFCS says it needs $21,000 and five more months.

"Access to information is very, very difficult," said Bill Hancock, founder of the non-profit organization FaithBridge.

"Who's being protected by this," asked Lindstrom.

"That is the best question I think I've heard in a while," Hancock replied. "Who would you think is not being protected primarily? Children."

Georgia State Representative Christian Coomer say he's working to change the law. His bill which, passed unanimously in the House, is now in the hands of the Senate. It would certainly allow greater access to those assigned to investigate a child's death, but leaves plenty of loopholes that would allow DFCS to continue giving the general public heavily redacted records.

"It's at least a step in the right direction," said Coomer. "It's not good enough to say we can't fix everything so we're not going to try anything."

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