More than 200 children have died with a DFCS history

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.

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To do that, we wanted to look at why children were dying, how decisions were being made. So Linstrom 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, that died and we have no explanation for how or why.

What they have given us is in parts. Many of the documents are redacted - covered in black ink.

Most of us would hate to think our life reduced to a few pages, but for the 213 children that we know have died in the past two years with a DFCS history, this is all we have to begin to understand why.

Even attorney Tom Rawlings, former director of the Office of the Child Advocate, the watchdog agency for DFCS, can't make sense of these documents.

"My first reaction is how on earth are you supposed to make any sense of this," said Rawlings.

That's because the reports are broken into bits. Most of these children's lives covered in black ink.

"It really conflicts with the federal rules that the state is required to follow in these cases," Rawlings said.

Even Melissa Carter, an attorney who helped draft the state law that allowed for all this black ink says this goes too far.

"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 that from the same report - just covered in more black ink - that DFCS gave to us.

In a meeting with DFCS division director Sharon Hill, her communications staff told us this was a legal matter and that they could not comment.

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

This is 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."

That's why Georgia State Representative Christian Coomer say he's working to change that law. His bill which, passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday, 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 records that look like this.

"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."

Right now, we're surveying Senators to find out if they support Coomer's bill. As you see, secrecy not only hides what led up to a child's death, but also the people responsible for letting it happen. Even with only half the files, there is still plenty we were able to learn about how the system failed these children.


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