Legislation unlikely to shed light on boys' case

Legislation that could open up secretive proceedings in Georgia's juvenile courts is gaining support in the General Assembly's final days.

It appears too late, however, to shed any light on the case of two Augusta brothers.

A year ago Monday, April and Thomas Beasley took their 9-year-old son to the emergency room. He had suffered a blow to the head hard enough to leave him partially blind and deaf. Law enforcement was called in, and Mr. and Mrs. Beasley are now under indictment in Columbia County Superior Court for child abuse.

They have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

When the Beasleys' other son, a 7-year-old, got the chance to talk without his parents, he gave authorities an account of horrific abuse that he and his brother endured over the years. What no one could explain is why it continued to happen and why a Juvenile Court judge -- now dead -- twice sent the youths back to their parents.

"(The brothers) are really the kind of kids the system has failed," Assistant District Attorney Hank Syms told a judge last fall in a successful attempt to keep Mr. Beasley in jail pending trial. "... all I know is that they've presented signs of injuries for years and now (the oldest) is in a situation that he may not recover from."

The secrecy of Juvenile Court is intended to protect children's privacy, but it also hid what happened to the Beasley brothers from November 2001 through last March 30, when the 9-year-old was admitted to Medical College of Georgia Hospital with a subdural hematoma.

That's when the 7-year-old told investigators that his father had slammed his brother to the floor two days earlier. The 9-year-old suffered a mini stroke in addition to the brain injury, according to Columbia County Superior Court records in the criminal case against the Beasleys.

At 7, the younger son has 200 scars on his body, and, according to the court documents, is terrified of water because his father would hold his head underwater until he became dizzy.

Former Superior Court Judge Duncan D. Wheale said he was furious when given details of the case. He presided over Mr. Beasley's bond hearing and denied bond. Prosecutors consented to a $25,000 bond for Mrs. Beasley, whose attorney contends was abused by her husband. She filed for divorce Monday in Columbia County Superior Court.

For a decade, Judge Wheale strongly criticized Augusta's Juvenile Court proceedings. He said children were endangered instead of being helped in the Richmond County Juvenile Court system. The brothers, he said, are victims of that system.

Although often critical of the Department of Family and Children Services, Judge Wheale said that in this case the state agency tried valiantly to protect the children.

School and hospital workers also tried to help them, according to a transcript filed in the Columbia County criminal case..

It started in November 2001 when the Beasleys first came to the attention of medical personnel after they took their older son, then 3, to the emergency room.

The toddler exhibited signs of shaken baby syndrome. Doctors were puzzled because they had never seen that diagnosis in a child as old as 3. They worried because the child had broken ribs. From the stage of healing, they could tell that injury occurred at a different, earlier time, according to court documents.

The brothers were taken from their parents, but Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Herbert Kernaghan returned them in early 2002 and dismissed the child advocate appointed to look out for their interest. The reason is sealed in closed Juvenile Court files.

Three years later, a school nurse at Sue Reynolds Elementary School called Mr. Beasley. His older son was suffering severe abdominal pain. He refused to go to the school and later, at the hospital, refused to let a doctor operate on his son, according to court documents filed in the Superior Court criminal case.

In January 2006, staff members at the school worried when the older child was absent for several days and returned with puffiness around his eyes. They called the Department of Family and Children Services. School officials called again the next month when the child missed more school and returned with a black eye.

The brothers were removed from the family's Willowood Road home in Augusta. According to court documents, the physician who examined them believed they had suffered physical abuse.

The younger child, then 5, had a busted lip and bruises on his face, according to court documents. His brother, then 7, was suicidal.

"He said his house makes he sad. And when asked why his house made him sad, he said 'they told me not to tell,' '' the prosecutor told Judge Wheale at Mr. Beasley's bond hearing.

Mr. and Mrs. Beasley refused to cooperate with a psychological assessment, but a month later Judge Kernaghan closed the case and sent the children home with their parents.

No longer under DFCS' watch, the family moved to Knob Hill neighborhood in Columbia County in July 2006.

By March 2008, the youths were back in foster care and their parents were charged with child abuse.

The Augusta Chronicle petitioned Juvenile Court Judge Benjamin Allen on Dec. 12 for permission to review the Beasleys' Richmond County Juvenile Court records. The files should document what brought the family into Juvenile Court repeatedly, whether abuse was confirmed and, if so, what services and steps were taken to safely reunite the family.

As of Friday, Judge Allen had not ruled on the petition.

The Chronicle also petitioned Juvenile Court Judge Douglas Flanagan. He is presiding over the family's current deprivation case in Columbia County, a court preceding running parallel to the criminal case against the couple.

Judge Flanagan spoke with The Chronicle's attorney Jan. 30, and a hearing date was set.

Two days later, however, Judge Flanagan wrote a letter informing The Chronicle's attorney that "your request is denied."

Judge Flanagan wrote that he had already decided "that the (public's) interest does not outweigh the protection of these children."

Charlene Ingram, of the Child Welfare League of America, a coalition of hundreds of private and public agencies serving vulnerable children and families, said that abuse allegations lodged against a family should raise red flags about the family and how the system is handling the allegations.

Although Ms. Ingram opposes opening Juvenile Court to the public, she said the public has the right to know the details when the system fails a child.

The public has the right to expect the system to work, too, said Ms. Ingram, the coalition's vice president for practice excellence.

Augusta area lawyer William Sams, a former Juvenile Court judge, said he supports a move to open Juvenile Court hearings so long as the judge retains the ability to close certain cases.

"I understand the reluctance to open them and the potential impact on the children," Mr. Sams said. "But which is worse -- have the child get picked on by his peers or the continuance of that abuse and neglect?"

A bill to open juvenile courts in Georgia is moving through the Senate and pending in the House. Mr. Sams supports the bill and the efforts to open the Juvenile Court system. It builds confidence in the system and enables the court to pull in extended family, friends and neighbors who want to help children, he said.

Deciding how to do what's best for children isn't easy, and there are no automatic answers, Mr. Sams said.

He questioned the return of the Beasleys' sons in 2006, however, considering their history with DFCS. A judge needs time to develop confidence that abuse won't happen again, Mr. Sams said in an interview.

The Beasley children were returned within six weeks, and neither parent underwent psychological counseling or examination, according to documents in Superior Court.

The family flew under the radar of law enforcement.

Richmond County DFCS never called sheriff's investigators about abuse allegations, according to sheriff's office documents.

The DFCS general policy is to involve law enforcement at the start of an investigation involving physical and sexual abuse or serious neglect, wrote David Noel, the public information office for the state's Department of Human Resources, in an e-mail response to The Chronicle's inquiry.

Assistant District Attorney Kristi Connell said law enforcement agencies won't know about child abuse unless they are told by someone such as a DFCS caseworker, hospital employee or family member. Ms. Connell said she has discovered cases through the Multi Child Review Team.

The team of child welfare professionals meets regularly to review and track child abuse cases. The hope in forming the team is to keep cases from falling through the cracks, she said.

A former neighbor of the Beasleys was shocked to hear of the allegations. It was clear Mr. Beasley was the head of the household, but he never exhibited any signs of violence, said the elderly neighbor, who asked not to be identified.

The brothers never played with any of the other neighborhood children, and the only time neighbors spotted the children was when they got onto or off the school bus.

Mr. Beasley told a neighbor they were moving to Columbia County for the school system.

On Avrett Way in Columbia County, a quiet, kid-friendly cove of manicured lawns, neighbors there say they rarely saw the brothers outside.

"They were quiet and kept to themselves. They seemed to be nice," Ashley Wahl said.

She once asked Mr. Beasley why his children weren't outside more. Her boys are the same age, she said, and they play outside every chance they get. Mr. Beasley told her he couldn't get his sons off the video games, Mrs. Wahl said.

Mrs. Wahl never heard or saw any evidence of abuse, she said, but she did notice one thing she now suspects was a sign. The kids always wore long-sleeved shirts and long pants, even in summer.

"He just seemed to be just a good kid," Mrs. Wahl said of the older Beasley son.

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

TIMELINE

SEPT. 9, 1998: First Beasley son born

JULY 23, 2000: Second Beasley son born

NOV. 8, 2001: Older son, then 3, has brain injury and broken ribs; both children taken into protective custody in Richmond County

2002: (exact dates unknown) Juvenile court case is closed, boys' custody returned to parents and child advocate dismissed

2005: Older boy suffers abdominal pain, Mr. Beasley rejects physician's recommendation for surgery

JANUARY 2006: Older son misses school and returns with puffiness around eyes

FEBRUARY 2006: Older son misses school again and returns with black eye

MARCH 1, 2006: Richmond County Department of Family and Children Services take both boys into protective custody

APRIL 18, 2006: Richmond County juvenile court case closed, Beasley family reunited.

JULY 27, 2006: Mr. and Mrs. Beasley purchase home in Columbia County

MARCH 30, 2008: Older son admitted to hospital with brain injury

JUNE 25, 2008: Mr. and Mrs. Beasley indicted by Columbia County grand jury

THE DEFENDANTS

Thomas G. Beasley Jr., 32

- 5 counts of cruelty to children in the first degree

- 1 count of cruelty to children in the second degree

- Being held without bond in Columbia County jail

April L. Beasley, 31

- 1 count of cruelty to children in the second degree

- Free on $10,000 bond

Juvenile records

Senate Bill 207 has passed in the Senate and has had a second reading in the House. It would open juvenile courts to the public with certain exceptions.