I-TEAM: Teachers may have saved brothers after repeated referrals to DFCS

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

(Source: WRDW)

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Teachers expressed their concern with the safety of four young brothers to the Division of Family and Children Services for more than three years.

DFCS did not remove the children until a very frustrated school counselor finally called the Columbia County Sheriff's Office herself.

We aren't naming the mother of the boys in order to protect the identity of the children. What we can tell you is the mother is now in prison, serving a 20-year sentence for child molestation. She is in prison because Columbia County teachers and a counselor did not stop sounding the alarm.

The very first referral is dated August 2009. A teacher writes, "[M]om [is] afraid she will lose control and hurt" her son.

A DFCS case worker later writes, the mother "functions at a lower cognitive level than the average person; however, I have not found that those mental limitations significantly impact the safety and well-being of the children."

Still, teachers continued to send reports to DFCS – burns and bruises, dirty and smelly, the boys not getting their medication.

In 2011, they began documenting suspected sexual abuse. The elementary school sent 15 referrals to DFCS but the children remained in the custody of their mother.

A frustrated teacher writes in early 2013, "I just wonder how much more it will take before something is done."

Michelle Sherman, an assistant school superintendent in Columbia County, called the situation difficult.

“It's hard. It's very hard. As I said, anytime you have a child that you believe is suffering for any reason, it's very difficult when you are reaching out for help and you feel like you are not getting the help that you need,” Sherman said.

Sherman says the district has more than 100 referrals to DFCS since the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

"There are often times we report and we are wrong,” Sherman said. “We are so thankful for those times, but we always err on the side of caution."

Teachers were not wrong about the brothers at the elementary school. A school counselor finally called the sheriff's office in February 2013. She told an investigator, "she was very concerned about the safety and stated they had been making referrals to (CCDFCS) Columbia County DFCS for years about neglect, inadequate supervision, physical and sexual abuse."

So how difficult is it for teachers and counselors looking to make a difference in a child’s life?

"Well it's quite difficult because a lot of times when children come in teachers have them 180 days a year, so they get to know these children quite well and it really becomes an extended family,” Sherman said. “That's just the truth. Ask any teacher.”

"Some teachers thankfully rang the bell as loud as they could,” District Attorney Natalie Paine said.

Paine prosecuted the boys’ mother.

"Lucky for the kids in a way their teachers basically saved them from that life because they were such vocal advocates for the kids,” Paine said. “There were a number of complaints that were made, but for whatever reason one way or another the cases continually been closed DFCS."

"We have recognized and I think DFCS would agree because of the nature of what we both do it's easy for relationships to get strained,” Paine said. “People to want us to do things better. We want them to do things better."

Sherman says the district and DFCS are actively working to strengthen their relationship so that no more children fall through the cracks.

“And to see them suffer in anyway is really hard and many times when children come in, it's nothing more than an intuition -- a feeling -- this child is really acting differently,” Sherman said.

Intuition along with years of persistence eventually saved the brothers from more abuse.

DFCS and Columbia County School District met last month to discuss how each can help the other.

DFCS wants teachers to include more details in their referrals. Teachers want to be kept in the loop on the outcome of the investigations.

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