DFCS probe: Violations rampant
By Blake Spurney Editor
Thursday, June 8, 2006 9:32 AM EDT
Stories of overzealous Department of Family and Children Services employees prowling for referrals and using people’s children as tools of extortion were true, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources investigative report.
Such stories had been circulating for months before the watershed moment nearly a year ago when Melinda “Mindy” McCoy was charged with reckless conduct for not removing children from a home.
Her downfall, brought about by co-workers seemingly targeting her for reporting questionable practices to the state, shed light on a rogue outfit operating behind a cloak of confidentiality.
After McCoy was suspended, her case and mileage documents were found in a shredding container at the DFCS office.
Some of the more shocking revelations listed in the 64-page report compiled by DHR investigators and obtained by The Clayton Tribune include:
� According to Rabun County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Mike Carnes, “deputies were sent by DFCS to schools to pick up children from schools; no reason was ever given for the directives and no court orders were ever issued.”
� Police Chief Tony Free told DHR in January that he heard Cpl. Donna Terry, and a former sheriff’s DFCS liaison, “bragging that she broke the record last month by picking up” 28 or 38 children.
� Former DFCS employee Sabrina Ritchie “knew there were times when staff discussed a case plan for a family and included everything they could to make the plan nearly impossible to complete,” the report said.
� Children were removed from the FAITH shelter, and clients said they were forced by DFCS to get a temporary protective order or risk losing their children, according to FAITH executive director Caroline White. Furthermore, her shelter held women “hostage” at times to help them keep their children.
“This is DFCS’ investigation,” said lawyer Brian Rickman. “This is their investigation and this is what they found, and it appears to verify virtually all of the allegations.”
The report alleges improprieties against the four employees terminated by DFCS since the investigation began in December, and the transfer of a fifth to another office. Findings substantiated by DHR investigators include children removed from homes without just cause, excessive drug screening, lack of proper supervision and a culture of violations that were permitted in a day-to-day environment.
Former director Linda Gragg, former social services supervisor Lynn Justus, Nicole Allen and Ritchie made false statements to investigators, among other violations of department policy, the report said. Most notably, the office was guilty of numerous conflicts of interest that violated DHR’s policy for Standards of Conduct and Ethics in Government.
Gragg declined to comment on the report until she had a chance to speak with her lawyer. Allen and state DFCS Director Mary Dean Harvey did not return phone calls seeking comment. Regional director Sid Jessup, who also is acting director of the local office, referred all questions to a DHR spokesman.
Rickman, the first person to publicly raise questions about the conflict involving DFCS and its drug testing contractor, was asked for a possible motive in the scandal.
“You can’t help but think there was some type of financial motive in all of this,” he said.
Creative Consulting Services of Northeast Georgia Inc., conducted drug screens for DFCS from October 2003-January 2006. The company is owned by Judith Mendoza, whose daughter, Allen, started working for DFCS in March 2004.
Allen’s friend and roommate, Officer Terry, and sister, Andrea Phelps, also worked for the company. Between January 2005 and this past January, DFCS paid the company $83,510 for 742 drug screens. Lumpkin County, with a population 50 percent larger than Rabun’s, paid out less than a third of that amount for 733 screens.
Gragg signed the agreements with Mendoza even though she was required to solicit a bid for anything costing more than $5,000. Gragg told investigators it was the only place in the county that could perform the screens.
But Mountain Lakes Medical Center Administrator Ben Busbee refuted that assertion and said he knew of no reason why the hospital would refuse to do screening for DFCS.
The drug screening process has elicited the most criticism since clients, lawyers and law enforcement started coming forward with their complaints last year. Investigators determined that people were continually tested even if they had repeated clean screens.
Justus, among others, gave Juvenile Court Judge Joanna Temple credit for the aggressive drug screening that ran afoul of state policy because of Rabun’s methamphetamine “epidemic.” Temple, a former DFCS lawyer, “wanted them to take it seriously,” the report said.
Sonya Neely, who was transferred to the Towns County office amid the investigation, told investigators Temple considered a refusal a positive test, and that the judge wanted children removed immediately if a parent tested positive. The state manual requires a court order to get a urine sample if a parent refuses a screen.
Neely also said, “Temple wanted her verbal orders complied with the same as her written orders.” The so-called verbal orders led to case workers, while accompanied by officers, picking up children based on one’s word of mouth.
Carnes and Free blamed Temple for much of the problems with the office. According to the report, Free “thought Judge Temple was responsible for much of the trouble because she was power hungry and out of line.” Carnes also thought “Temple was the problem. He did not understand what verbal orders were and how they were legal.”
Neither Temple, nor the person who appointed her, Chief Judge Ernest “Bucky” Woods, returned phone calls seeking comment.
To help pay for the excessive screening, Gragg approved pulling money from Prevent Unnecessary Placement funds, typically used to help people clean or repair their homes.
Several other conflicts were revealed during the investigation. Mendoza and Phelps got paid $20 an hour to do paperwork for DFCS and Terry was paid for respite care by DFCS. Respite care typically is when an officer stays with a child in a hotel room when the child can’t be placed with a foster parent.
According to DFCS receptionist Linda Brown, Mendoza had an office at DFCS where she conducted drug screens. Phelps previously had a day care in her home and received referrals from DFCS, some of which were from Allen, according to Terry Salemi, a former DFCS worker.
Justus’ husband, Cory, owned a vending machine in the DFCS lobby. It was removed Jan. 16. Gragg gave him a soft drink machine because RC Cola never came to pick it up.
According to Neely, Justus was “closer than friends” with Ritchie and let her go on home visits even though she wasn’t qualified to do so.
Terry went on most calls with Allen while Terry was the sheriff’s liaison. Terry also performed drug screens while on duty as a Clayton police officer, according to the report. Ritchie told investigators the conflict wasn’t discussed around Allen because she was “protective” of her family. Terry, who was considered part of her family, told investigators she went inside homes to make decisions; “she didn’t just sit in the car and let them make the decisions.”
Some DFCS employees had covered for each other, at least until the investigation got under way. A DFCS investigator was going to look into a referral concerning Neely, but Justus screened out the referral on Gragg’s instruction.
When previously questioned by The Tribune about her office, Gragg routinely brought up how she was short staffed and that her employees were overburdened with a heavy caseload. Justus told investigators that Gragg “went through the newspaper to look for situations in which DFCS had not received a referral, but she would not call it shopping for referrals. Director Gragg was making sure that all the cases were being addressed.”
DFCS workers also went through reports at the sheriff’s office to make sure nothing was missed. Dispatchers complained that Terry questioned every call that came to the 911 center.
Neely acknowledged that people in Rabun knew the best way to get even with someone was to make an anonymous call to DFCS accusing someone of using drugs. Even when no evidence of drug use existed, “she knew the policy was to do a drug screen.”
Even people without children were not immune from running afoul from an apparent culture of vindictiveness at DFCS.
A review of one case file showed Cory Justus, a sheriff’s office employee, reported to his wife, Lynn, that someone had a filthy house, possibly abused drugs and had an unsupervised child. Neighbors, including Lynn’s ex-husband, also made allegations to DFCS about the person.
Case worker Steve Gates found the reports unfounded because no child was living in the residence.
Police often went to the house on barking dog complaints. Cory Justus told an officer that his wife “wanted to get something” on the family and suggested that the officer report a dirty house. Gates did not turn in a report regarding his conversation with the officer because he feared retaliation from Lynn Justus, his supervisor.
One of the most telling signs of how out of control the situation became comes from the small number of referrals DFCS has seen since January. Jessup said no child had been placed in state custody since mid-January. He said DFCS had worked hard with family members in cases where it appeared a child might have to be removed. In the worst cases, children have been left with a relative or neighbor.
Case manager Kim Bell reported in January that the number of referrals had declined in recent months. She had heard schools were afraid to make referrals because of the media coverage.
White said FAITH had seen a decline in the number of calls it received on its crisis line and in the number of people coming to its shelter for assistance.
“That’s what we were hearing from people who walked through the door, that they would never call 911 again or FAITH because they didn’t want to lose their children,” White said last week.
In her six years at FAITH, White had never before had a child removed from a shelter. “I wouldn’t ask for help either,” she said. “We have a lot of healing to do.”
When asked who the victims were, she said it was the community at large. “It’s every social service agency in this community, but it’s also those workers who were fired because they were misguided and mismanaged. All those people were dedicated to social services.”
Allen and Ritchie told investigators Gragg and Justus signed off on every decision they made.
“Nicole truly cared about children and was just misguided and mismanaged. I don’t think she tried to hurt anybody, personally,” White said.
Rickman said a bigger issue than the financial motives needed to be addressed.
“It was a crusade. That’s a more complicated thing to address. People who honestly thought they were the only ones who know what’s best for kids … and were going to do whatever it takes,” he said. “I don’t think it was just about money. I think they truly believe nothing wrong has been done.”
Rickman also said no objective person could come to a conclusion other than that some serious instances of wrongdoing occurred. The real tragedy, he added, would be if nobody learned from it.