Police seek answer after dogs attack

At least three agencies are investigating a weekend dog attack that left a 2-year-old Augusta boy hospitalized in critical condition.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Family and Children's Services confirmed Monday that it is looking into Friday night's attack on Damien Chavous, as are the Richmond County Sheriff's Office and Augusta Animal Services.

The child remained in critical condition Monday at Medical College of Georgia Hospital, but Bill Swint, his great-grandfather, said the family is encouraged because he is moving his arms, legs and eyes.

The family says it is still unsure how the child got over a neighbor's fence in the 3600 block of Belair Road, where he was attacked by four dogs.

"We really feel bad about this, but who's to say his mother's at fault?" he said Monday. "How in the world were we supposed to know he would get over that fence?"

Family members said the child was playing unattended for about 10 minutes on his family's deck before they noticed he was in the other yard.

Mr. Swint said Damien's mother was making a bottle for her 2-month-old while Damien rode his tricycle on the deck. Because the deck gate was locked, the family did not expect the child to be able to get off it. The yards are also separated by a 4-foot fence.

"The gate is always closed. The backyard is fenced in," Mr. Swint said Monday. "I've lived here 45 years, and we've never had a kid climb over that fence."

The sheriff's office could file charges including negligence against the great-grandparents and Damien's mother, said Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Ken Rogers. The animals -- which were being cared for by a local woman, Shirley Barnes, as part of her animal rescue operation, Hearts for Animals -- were confined in the neighboring backyard, Sgt. Rogers said.

Though the sheriff's office is also investigating Ms. Barnes, he said, there are no indications that she is at fault.

"The owner of the dogs hasn't done anything wrong as far as we can see, but have dogs in her yard," Sgt. Rogers said.

There were six dogs in the yard at the time of the attack, but only four were involved, said Augusta Animal Services Director Diane Downs. One dog was in the front yard at the time of the mauling. Another ran away when Animal Services arrived Friday night, Ms. Downs said. The five dogs that were at the home are being held at the animal shelter pending an investigation into whether their rabies shots are up to date.

"A local veterinarian is helping us determine whether all these dogs were vaccinated properly," Ms. Downs said. "No charges are pending related to the attack because the animals were confined to the yard."

There have been problems in the past, however.

Animal Services had been called to the residence several times over the past three years, Ms. Downs said. Four leash-law violations are pending against Ms. Barnes from 2007. In December, she received an animal cruelty complaint because she had more than 15 dogs at the address. Georgia dog owners can have no more than seven pets at their residence. Ms. Barnes has been in compliance with that law since January, Ms. Downs said.

Ms. Barnes is not registered as a licensed animal rescuer in Georgia, Ms. Downs said. But Ms. Barnes said she has rescued animals for more than three years.

"These dogs had been abandoned, and I took them in," she said. "I've done nothing wrong."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

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