It’s been over five years since this family saw their entire family. They say a broken system and broken promises are to blame.
GWINNETT COUNTY, Georgia – Five years is a long time to wait for a decision. But it can’t be long enough for a family.
They are waiting for a Gwinnett County court judge to determine what role they played in the death of their eldest son and what will happen to their two living children, the youngest to be taken from their mother’s arms as an infant.
“Every time I have to say goodbye to my kids, it really hurts, and I can see it hurts,” said her mother, who was sitting on a bench in a park near the Gwinnett County apartment where she lives with her husband.
So this mother said she was making a private conversation with the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) exposing what she calls troubling truths about our child welfare system.
The family’s son, Geovonnti, had a long list of medical concerns from birth, but doctors wondered if something else at home was making his condition worse. Nobody could find out before they died.
The police decided that the parents had not committed a crime. But while the coroner could not determine the cause of death, she believes the child was molested at some point during his lifetime. The family argues that his medical diagnosis explains his injuries, he is sick and frail.
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Court files in juvenile matters are not publicly available, neither social workers nor judges can speak publicly about the case, and the lawyers involved usually do not.
However, Reveal investigator Rebecca Lindstrom heard a two-hour conversation from January 2017. The family team met to address their concerns about the case, the terms of their son’s visit and his foster home.
The DFCS staff present appeared sympathetic in the reception, but the mother is reminded: “We have to make 100 percent sure that this is the best decision for these children.”
“The fact that you had multiple case managers had a very negative impact on this case,” another employee later added.
The family can count on six clerks, the youngest of whom is accused of sitting silently in court when the DFCS attorney beat them up over something they knew was not true. It was controversial how the parents booked their court-ordered reports.
The mother said she was unable to reach the original doctor and worked with her lawyer and case officer to get another referral. E-mails and SMS from the family substantiate their claim and the clerk admits this in the recording.
“Nobody corrected this man,” said the mother with a clear frustration in her voice. “The guardian even went so far as to say that if these parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, maybe we should check fines or send them to jail. Is that what you mean when I did what I was told? “
In the tape, DFCS promised to fix the matter at the next court hearing, but the hearing came and went. The mother said no one said anything. Lindstrom also sat in court for several days and heard the same allegations instead of being withdrawn.
It may seem trivial, but this mother said the judge’s opinion was critical and this was just one example of misinformation that was put on the file, irrefutably.
Mom said that was another problem. Neither her husband’s lawyer nor hers stood up for her.
“You have to make sure that your lawyers are proactive, because it doesn’t sound like they did a very good job either,” said the DFCS representative who attended the meeting.
When The Reveal was investigating the family’s case, Lindstrom found a document that her lawyers at the time said they had never seen. The family said it showed a witness who gave conflicting testimony in the early days of the case.
The family has repeatedly asked for copies of court orders and judgments to better understand what was going on in court, but said they never received them.
“They are a party, which means they must get a copy of all pleadings, all motions, all court orders,” said attorney Ashley Willcott, a child advocate and pro tempore judge. “Then the lawyer has to [them]. Part of our problem with our system is that you have to fight for every little bit. “
Willcott is not involved in this case, but did provide guidance on policies and procedures that apply to all DFCS and juvenile justice matters.
In this case, the parents are represented by public defenders. The mother’s youngest attorney said in an email, “I understand this is a terrible process. I was late on the case, but I will do my best to make sure the children are with you again. “
The words were encouraging, but seven months into the case she had never met the lawyer or spoken to him on the phone. In August he decided to withdraw from penniless defense cases. Mom has no idea who is representing her now.
Emails exchanged between Lindstrom and the court’s Gwinnett administrative office indicated that the mother’s last attorney had worked for the Guardian Ad Litem’s office, the same office that struggled to keep the children from going home to return.
And almost two months after her youngest attorney filed a resignation, the administration seemed unaware of it. A new lawyer wasn’t assigned until Lindstrom started asking questions.
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State law requires a status hearing before the judge every six months, but in this case there hasn’t been a hearing since last June.
“In 2014 the Juvenile Justice Act was rewritten and a number of time frames were set to prevent cases from staying in court,” Willcott said.
Whatever the initial concern, the mother asked if it was still the case. Your kids are just before five and nine. You go to school and will likely have years of therapy. If they experienced abuse or had problems at home, there were assigned reporters who could alert the DFCS or the police.
She asked why taxpayers can pay the bill for lawyers, foster families, and transporters to allow visits when they come home, attend family counseling, and even have a case officer do social checks if necessary.
This mom said when visiting, her son always says: “I want to go to your home, I want to go to your home. And I can only say that I am trying. “
The family usually sees their daughter two hours a week. Visits to her son are twice a month, not in a playground but in an office so that a therapist can be present.
“There are tables and chairs. The front is like a whiteboard. There is nothing for a child, ”she said.
Even so, they bring games and do their best to have fun hiding behind the tables and chairs. But every time she visits, she asks who is our youth welfare system helping, if it works like that?
“This is an example of a system failure no matter what,” said Willcott.
The Reveal is an investigative show that exposes inequality, injustice and incompetence created by rulers across Georgia and across the country. It will be broadcast on 11Alive at 6 a.m. on Sunday evening.
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