Cobb child welfare office failed to act on reports
Cobb County child protection workers twice rejected requests to investigate conditions in a Mableton home where two children died this year.
Eight-year-old Josef Mykel Smith, who died Oct. 9, was beaten so severely that his brain swelled and bruises covered much of his body, police said. Police said his parents sometimes locked the boy in a closet and made him pray to a picture of Jesus.
Joseph Smith, 44, and Sonya Smith, 36, were charged last week with felony murder, cruelty to a child and contributing to the deprivation of a minor. Child welfare workers have removed two other children and placed them in foster care.
Police are still investigating the death July 25 of Josef’s 17-month-old brother, Milek, initially listed as caused by pneumonia. The Cobb County medical examiner expects to complete its report in about a week.
Months before the first child died, the Cobb County office of the state Division of Family and Children Services received two reports by child welfare workers in Henry County regarding strange behavior exhibited by the older boy, according to records obtained by the Journal-Constitution.
Each time, the Cobb agency declined to initiate an investigation, despite written reports that the boy was acting as though possessed by demons, that he was planning to kill people and that he was not receiving mental health services.
When Cobb child welfare officials did open investigations after each boy’s death, caseworkers in both instances proceeded without knowing about the previous concerns that were raised.
Cobb officials on Tuesday attributed caseworkers’ not knowing of previous complaints to poor record-keeping.
The director of the Cobb DFCS office said workers did not violate policies and have not been disciplined.
Child advocate opens probe
On Tuesday the state’s child advocate opened an investigation into how Cobb handled the situation. Child Advocate Dee Simms said she was particularly concerned that Cobb caseworkers did not pick up on the concerns raised by their counterparts in Henry County.
“I find it troubling that there was previous information on the family that got lost somehow,” Simms said.
A prior history “triggers a closer look. Losing documentation, misplacing documentation is detrimental to the protection of a family,” she said.
Cobb County’s top child protection official, Catherine Anderson, said Tuesday she wishes the workers had visited the house after receiving written reports from Henry County.
Anderson said her staff did not respond to the Henry County complaints because they did not contain any direct accusations of neglect or abuse.
However, she acknowledged that failure by a parent to provide a child with needed mental health services could be construed as neglect.
Anderson said that from now on her office will comply with all requests from other DFCS offices for home visits.
Concerns about how the county agency handled this case come as the state’s child protection agency struggles to rebuild itself. A top-down shake-up of the agency followed the unrelated beating deaths this summer of two 2-year-olds in metro Atlanta, both of whom had a history with the agency. The agency’s two top officials were forced to resign, retraining was ordered for 1,500 caseworkers, and an advisory panel of child welfare advocates and experts was created.
In addition, top DFCS officials targeted about a dozen of the agency’s county offices for problems with child abuse cases, employee turnover, inexperienced caseworkers, adoptions and foster care. DFCS has replaced the leadership in offices in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Paulding and Muscogee counties, officials said.
The Cobb County DFCS office, however, was not on the list of troubled counties and has been considered by DFCS officials to be among the better operations in the state.
The Smith family first came to the attention of DFCS in May after a complaint by a 14-year-old relative in Henry County, records show. The teenager is the daughter of Joseph Smith by another woman, and she visited the Mableton home on weekends.
The girl described Josef as being “demon possessed,” according to a DFCS report dated May 14. “She described his eyes rolling in the back of his head as if he were going through some transformation.”
In another DFCS report dated the same day, the girl said the Smiths agreed with Josef when he said he was possessed, and responded by placing video cameras in the house to observe him. DFCS records say the Smiths belong to Remnant Fellowship International, a nondenominational church founded by Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin. Her book “The Weigh Down Diet” has sold more than a million copies. The church emphasizes discipline and obedience.
The original complaint was brought to the attention of the Henry County DFCS office by authorities at the teenager’s school. The girl had cried while telling her gym teacher that she was afraid to go to Josef’s home.
Later in May, when Henry County DFCS officials learned that Cobb had not initiated an investigation, they sent another written request. This time, they specifically requested Cobb DFCS perform a “courtesy interview” with the family.
Henry County officials indicated at the time that they had additional concerns about Josef. According to the May 22 memo, the boy called himself Legion, which he said means many demons. He wrote on the walls that he was going to kill everyone. He heated a fork and stuck it down the pants of one of his siblings, causing a permanent scar. His parents occasionally locked him in his room, telling him to pray and recite Scriptures.
“There are certainly concerns that this child may need to get some mental health treatment and that the other children in the home may be at risk,” said the memo written by Jill Orr, Henry County’s social services case manager.
Anderson, the Cobb County DFCS director, said the supervisor in her office who handled the case said she never saw the memo. The memo was faxed to Cobb DFCS, but the supervisor missed it, she said.
“It was an error,” Anderson said.
The director also said she doesn’t know whether it would have made a difference if the supervisor had seen the memo. “There’s nothing in that memo that says the parents might beat a child to death,” Anderson said. “It was a judgment call, a judgment which people might question.”
In July, after 17-month-old Milek died at his home, Cobb DFCS workers visited the Smith home.
Death initially suspicious
According to a DFCS log of events, police initially considered the child’s death suspicious.
While Milek had no marks on him, his family’s account of how he might have died had some inconsistencies, according to the DFCS log. A July 26 DFCS report noted an autopsy suggested the cause of death to be pneumonia, and the medical examiner did not believe the death was caused by abuse. However, a DFCS staff member wrote in the report: “I questioned how a child could be so sick that he died of pneumonia, while his parents maintained that he was not sick and had never been sick. “
DFCS workers formally started an investigation into Milek’s death. But Sonya Smith would allow DFCS staff inside the house only if they agreed not to speak to her children, according to DFCS records. The children were still devastated by Milek’s death, the mother reportedly said.
Since no criminal charges had been filed and the death appeared to be of natural causes, caseworkers agreed not to speak to the children, DFCS officials said.
At the time, the Cobb DFCS workers investigating Milek’s death did not know about the earlier requests from Henry County to investigate the Smith family. If they had, Anderson said, they might have asked more pointed questions.
Such requests from another DFCS agency are supposed to be logged into three places: the original paper file, a card file with condensed case histories and on a computer file.
The concerns raised by Henry County DFCS had not been filed on the card file, Anderson said, which left Cobb DFCS workers in the dark.
The worker who visited the Smith home Aug. 7 found a fairly clean and orderly residence, the DFCS report said. The children, in clean clothes, played in the kitchen. Sonya Smith worked at home and home-schooled her four children, according to the DFCS report.
On Aug. 21, the Cobb DFCS office closed its investigation after finding no reason to suspect child abuse or neglect.
On Oct. 9, DFCS was back at the house investigating, along with police, the death of 8-year-old Josef.
During an interview that day, Joseph Smith told DFCS workers the family had been watching a Webcast of their religious services. Their son didn’t want to watch and was having a tantrum, the father said. He said the boy would steal his mother’s credit cards.
Smith also said Josef sometimes hit his mother, and the parents would hit him with a belt behind his knee. He showed the belt, which was black and had silver studs on it.
He told DFCS workers that Josef was strong and could knock a person out.
‘Josef got several whippings’
In an interview Oct. 9 with Cobb County police, Sonya Smith said she disciplined Josef by hitting him with a 2-or-3-foot-long, whiplike glue stick.
Police say the parents used the stick to beat the boy, and that sometimes an older boy was ordered to hold Josef while he was beaten.
“Ms. Smith said that she normally gives the children their whippings in increments of 10,” the police report said. “Ms. Smith said that yesterday, Josef got several whippings.”