Originally created 06/11/04

Mother, system strained by split



Caught in the midst of chaos at the local Department of Family and Children Services are children such as Jemecka Berrian's 7-year-old son, who was handcuffed and taken to the state's largest mental institution last month.

"When they (two Richmond County Sheriff officers) walked in, his whole face went blank. You could see the tears run down his face," Ms. Berrian said of what she witnessed at Medical College of Georgia Hospital at about 9 p.m. May 24.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said deputies handcuffed the boy because he had allegedly tried to run out into traffic.

Earlier last month, Ms. Berrian had hoped she would be reunited with her four children, ages 4 months to 7 years. Her DFCS caseworker approved of the return and intended to set a court date to ask the juvenile court judge to make it official. But before they could meet, the caseworker had left, Ms. Berrian said.

"It's like I'm put on hold," Ms. Berrian said. Her calls to DFCS go unanswered, even with one of her children in a mental hospital more than 100 miles away, she said.

"I can't even begin to imagine why they would do that; there's no logical basis to ship a 7-year-old to the largest psychiatric hospital in the state," said Ruby Moore of the Georgia Advocate Center, a protection and advocacy agency that reaches out to the underprivileged and handicapped, investigating reports of abuse and neglect. "That's a complete and utter failure of the system," she said.

The really sad thing about one little boy sent off to Central State Hospital, Ms. Moore said, is that "he's not the only one."

Dr. Phil Horton, the acting executive director of the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia, agreed with Ms. Moore's assessment.

Since Georgia Regional Hospital in Augusta closed its in-patient ward for children in the 1990s, children are taken to Central State whenever MCG's small ward is full, he said.

"It's been a disaster. It's a horrible situation," he said. "I have a problem with a 7-year-old taken in a police car more than 100 miles away, taken to a hospital without the ability to see a parent. It's very traumatizing, and in that case the child's being neglected," Dr. Horton said.

Ms. Berrian just got to see her son again Monday. He was wearing the same clothes he had on the night deputies took him away, she said. He is also on medication now, she said.

"He's acting totally different. He's aware of everything, but he's in his own world ... just staring into space," Ms. Berrian said.

Sheriff Strength said it is department policy to handcuff patients being driven to mental hospitals. In this case, they opted to handcuff the child for his own safety, the sheriff said.

The boy might not have been perfect under her care, Ms. Berrian said, but he had never tried to hurt himself or anyone else until he was taken away and separated from his siblings in February.

"That would wreak havoc in a small child's life," Dr. Horton said.

Ms. Berrian's children were taken after she whipped her 5-year-old with a belt for repeatedly wetting her bed while she was still awake. School officials saw marks on the girl and called DFCS.

Ms. Berrian said she understood why DFCS took action. She said she immediately started work on the DFCS case plan in hopes of getting her children back as soon as possible. She finished it in March. Meanwhile, her mother and a cousin stepped forward to care for the children so they could stay together, but they cannot have the children until their fingerprints are examined, Ms. Berrian said.

The fingerprinting of relatives willing to care for children in state custody is a huge problem because it takes so long, said Sandra Jordan, a former DFCS supervisor in the Augusta office. The state office is still investigating allegations of endangered children, falsified records and mismanagement at the Richmond County DFCS office. In addition, an assessment team is trying to determine if a rapid-response team is needed to deal with high caseloads and find lasting solutions.

One mother called a former case manager to say she received a court order this week that extends the time for her child to remain in state custody another year, Ms. Jordan said. The order, obtained by The Augusta Chronicle on Thursday, states that both the mother and her former case manager were at a June 3 hearing. The case worker, however, hasn't worked for DFCS since May 5. The mother, Ms. Jordan said, insisted she didn't even know the hearing was scheduled, Ms. Jordan said.

This week, B.J. Walker, the new director of the state's Department of Human Resources, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that DFCS is in a state of crisis and that the agency must change the way it operates.

Citing the 28 percent increase in cases since December, Ms. Walker said case workers are so afraid of making mistakes that they are taking too many children from their parents, according to the Associated Press.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.