Rabun DFCS crisis timeline
Thursday, June 8, 2006 9:32 AM EDT
The Rabun County Department of Family and Children Services became the target of a state investigation in December. The Tribune first began hearing complaints about DFCS two years ago. A timeline of how things progressed, at least as far as news coverage is concerned, is listed below:
� April 22, 2004 – A man whose two young children were taken into state custody questioned the authenticity of verbal court orders. Director Linda Gragg said her agency would do its best to have written orders in hand before involving officers when picking up children.
� July 28, 2005 – Donna Terry, a DFCS liaison for the sheriff’s office, took out a reckless conduct warrant against case worker Melinda “Mindy” McCoy after the latter didn’t remove children from a home Terry deemed to have substandard living conditions. Chief Deputy Mike Carnes refused to serve it, and the warrant was dismissed at a prewarrant hearing. Terry testified she didn’t go inside the residence on the day specified on the warrant; the children were staying with a relative down the street. She went to the residence in question with Andrea Phelps, an employee of Creative Consulting Services of Northeast Georgia Inc., to conduct a drug test. McCoy, an 18-year employee, was placed on paid leave after Phelps and Terry reported the situation to a DFCS supervisor. The fallout from the disagreement over a seemingly discretionary matter served as a watershed event by drawing attention to how the agency and its drug-testing contractor operated.
� Aug. 4, 2005 – Law enforcement officials met with DFCS workers in an attempt to iron out differences in how each agency needed to work together. DFCS was requesting officers to accompany them on up to 10 calls a night. The backlog occurred, in part, because Terry, a full-time Clayton police officer, was removed from her duties as a DFCS liaison for the sheriff’s office. Deputy Cary Brown questioned why he needed to go on calls in which drug samples were being obtained. Gragg said her office had the highest number of referrals in her 23 years as an employee; she also was one case worker short because McCoy was on paid leave.
� Aug. 4, 2005 – A Tribune editorial raised questions about potential conflicts involving businesses DFCS has contracts with, including the drug testing company. “A question exists whether people related to a (DFCS) employee should be allowed to provide such services,” the editorial charged. Gragg said nepotism rules only covered those within the agency and those who are dependents on an employee’s tax return. The Georgia Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFCS, was asked for an opinion on the matter.
� Aug. 18, 2005 – McCoy, a case worker for 18 years, was fired by Gragg. McCoy said she wasn’t given a reason for her termination. Her lawyer, Brian Rickman, said she was fired for voicing concerns to DHR about how the agency was being run.
� Dec. 8, 2005 – State Sen. Nancy Schaefer announces her plans in holding a forum for people to air complaints about the local office. Rickman said his office was receiving calls from people unhappy with DFCS at least every other day. He also said a common complaint stemmed from the perception of “a significant conflict of interest with personnel at DFCS and personnel who assist with DFCS.” Seven people came to The Tribune to announce they had started a petition drive for people unhappy with DFCS.
� Dec. 15, 2005 – Schaefer and Rickman said they were receiving an even higher number of calls from people dissatisfied with DFCS.
� Dec. 22, 2005 – Schaefer secures plans to hold her forum Jan. 3 at the Rabun County Library. She would be joined by state DFCS Director Mary Dean Harvey. Lawyer Michael Cummings detailed the conflict of interest concerning Creative Consulting by referring to a September deposition he conducted. Case worker Nicole Allen testified that her mother, Judith Mendoza, her sister, Andrea Phelps, and her friend, Terry, worked for the company. She also admitted she lived with her mother and Terry and denied any money from the drug screening business went toward house payments. Gragg said she had researched the conflict “from top to bottom, and there’s no conflict.” Cummings said: “That is all a gross conflict of interest that is as glaring as the sun, and somebody needs to recognize that. If the state office can’t figure that out, there’s no help for them.”
� Dec. 29, 2005 – A Tribune editorial praised Schaefer for organizing the forum for people who felt they had been taken advantage of by DFCS. “While it’s difficult to judge the merits of individual cases, the sheer volume of complaints is cause for alarm.”
� Jan. 5 – Harvey and Schaefer heard complaints from three dozen people, some of whom waited in line for hours at the library. Those unloading complaints did it behind closed doors. Leslie Joiner and her daughter, Amber Fountain, drove up from Florida to explain their three-year battle in trying to get custody of Joiner’s grandchildren. The children, 3 years and 7 weeks, were taken based on an anonymous complaint that was never verified. It was this case, called a “legal kidnapping” by Joiner’s lawyer in an October hearing, that piqued Schaefer’s interest in DFCS. DHR investigator Carol Durham told Rickman she was looking into the conflict issue.
� Jan. 5 – A Tribune editorial praised Harvey for coming to Rabun and criticized her for not allowing a reporter to be present at the forum. “For healing to occur, Harvey needs to understand that the public’s trust has been shaken locally. If the relationship is to improve, light needs to be shed upon aspects of the agency’s operation.”
� Jan. 12 – Gragg was reassigned to another DFCS office, and Harvey severed ties with Creative Consulting. Regional Director Sid Jessup was assigned to oversee the local office, and State Social Services Director Wilfred Hamm was sent to Rabun to look into “operational procedures.” Harvey confirmed that DHR opened an investigation in the fall. She also confirmed that the drug testing company had been getting paid on a per-test basis. “My jaw dropped when I heard that because that clearly creates a serious problem,” Rickman said. He also said people reported being tested multiple times and that testing continued even after results showed no drug usage. Harvey said she was “saddened” by what she heard at the forum. Schaefer said she was “stunned” about what she heard. The situation had gotten the attention of Gov. Sonny Perdue.
� Jan. 19 – Harvey visited The Tribune to discuss ongoing changes to ensure the Rabun office delivered quality services. The ongoing investigation had no timeline. In her strongest language yet, Schaefer said “DFCS has got to work to unite families, not obliterate families. What we saw on that Tuesday (Jan. 3) were many families that had been obliterated.”
� Jan. 19 – A Tribune editorial asked people to be patient and give the state agency a chance to clean up its own mess. “(W)e all need a strong office that seeks the community’s trust.” It also pointed to Juvenile Judge Joanna Temple’s validation of verbal orders as the initial source of the problems.
� Feb. 2 – Four DFCS workers, Gragg, Allen, Sonya Neely and Sabrina Ritchie, were suspended with pay. DHR inspector Alan Tennant said he was returning to Rabun to continue his investigation. Schaefer suggested for completely new staff to be brought in to run the office. She was still getting calls from families unhappy about their cases.
� Feb. 23 – Based on records obtained through the Open Records Act, The Tribune reported that the Rabun office paid Creative Consulting more than $82,000 for conducting drug screens between January 2005 and Jan. 23. Rickman, Cummings and Richard Tunkle accused the company of excessive testing for profit. An e-mail McCoy sent to the state about the time she was suspended showed she had lodged a complaint detailing abuses that had been the source of most of the complaints about DFCS. “Children are removed in the county if the parents refuse a drug screen or if their home is dirty,” she wrote. Tunkle said everyone in the county who had to take a drug test for Allen had a claim in a class action lawsuit against the state based on conflict of interest, invasion of privacy and fraud. DHR human resources manager Rebecca Burton wrote that statements from Phelps – an employee of Creative Consulting – were used in the decision to fire McCoy. Rickman said he was giving “heavy consideration” to filing a wrongful termination lawsuit on behalf of McCoy.
� March 2 – Jessup asked the Rabun County Board of Commissioners for $23,793 in additional county funding for the current fiscal year to account for a 40 percent increase in the number of children entering foster care. Rabun had 56 children in foster care.
� March 9 – The five-member DFCS board oversees the spending of the county’s tax dollars. The board is asking the county for $80,500 for fiscal year 2007, a 54 percent increase over the 2006 request. It also represented the first substantial increase in more than eight years.