Georgia’s child protection agency already had investigated four reports alleging abuse of a little girl named Emani Moss. The most recent had led to her stepmother’s conviction on a child cruelty charge. Yet in 2012, when the Division of Family and Children Services received another allegation that Emani had been beaten with a belt, the agency’s caseworkers didn’t question the girl’s parents. They didn’t talk to Emani or check her for injuries. They made no in-person contact at all with Emani’s demonstrably dangerous family.
Emani’s burned, emaciated body was found in a metal trash can outside her family’s Lawrenceville apartment in November 2013. Apparently starved, she weighed just 32 pounds. She was 10 years old.
More than two years later, the state agency known as DFCS is changing how it assesses maltreatment reports like the one it received about Emani in April 2012.
Agency workers will no longer use just information gathered over the telephone to determine whether maltreatment allegations warrant investigations, DFCS director Bobby Cagle said in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. No case will be assigned a less-serious, lower-priority status until a caseworker has had direct contact with a child who allegedly has been victimized, Cagle said.
This new approach, which will be phased in statewide over the next year, represents a monumental shift in how DFCS conducts its business. For years, workers were able to assign cases to “family support” or “diversion” status simply by looking over a synopsis of information phoned in by people who suspected a child had been abused or neglected. In those cases, parents may have been offered counseling or asked to attend classes, but caseworkers would not conduct thorough investigations.
Screening cases by phone became common over the past decade as DFCS struggled with budget cuts and experienced a philosophical change that favored leaving children with their families except under the direst circumstances.
Now, Cagle said, the agency plans to deploy caseworkers to ensure the safety of all children who are the subjects of maltreatment reports. At the same time, he said, he wants to speed up the assessment of all cases, which takes as long as five days.
DFCS has asked the Georgia General Assembly to approve the hiring of 175 caseworkers, partly to perform these initial screenings, partly to reduce existing caseloads. Between budget cuts and a turnover rate of 36 percent, DFCS has about 20 percent fewer caseworkers than it had a decade ago. In 2006, the agency employed about 2,500 caseworkers; the workforce dwindled to 1,617 in 2013 before increasing to about 2,000.
Every time lawmakers trim the agency’s budget, Cagle said, “you can almost predict you’re going to have tragedies coming at the other end.”
For years, DFCS — like similar agencies across the nation — alternated between two very different styles: a family-preservation bias that often left children in dangerous homes and an aggressiveness that took more children into the state's custody but greatly increased foster-care rolls. Cagle wants a steadier approach – one that requires fully staffing caseworker positions while giving new methods time to take hold.
“This is a multi-year effort; this is not a quick fix,” Cagle said. But without a long-term strategy, he said, “you’re never going to get to the heart of the problems.”
Chances are, Cagle won’t be around to see whether his plans work. He is the ninth DFCS director in 12 years. With a little more than 18 months on the job, he already has exceeded the average tenure by more two months.