By Joanna Soto Carabello and Lee Shearer
Two Clarke County child abuse files now under scrutiny in a statewide criminal investigation have already been reviewed by one state agency and no evidence of a crime was revealed, according to Clarke County Department of Family and Children Services officials.
Jamorio, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Winterville Elementary School, was beaten to death Feb. 8, 1998.
He had been sent home to his maternal grandmother’s house from school after being accused of stealing $5 from another student’s desk. The grandmother had custody because the Clarke County Juvenile Court had removed the boy from his mother’s care, according to court records. The removal was based on allegations of neglect, not abuse, a Department of Family and Child Services spokesman said at the time.
The day Jamorio died, the grandmother allowed the mother and her boyfriend to take Jamorio to their apartment after he was sent home from school. There, the two beat him for more than two hours, according to police and medical testimony in the trial of the mother, 29-year-old Vernessa Marshall. In September, a Clarke County jury found Marshall guilty but mentally ill of felony murder. She was sentenced to life in prison. Her boyfriend and co-defendant, Demetrius Paul, 27, still awaits trial.
Jalliyah Humphrey , 21 months old, died June 3, 1997, the victim of a savage beating that fractured her skull and split her liver, according to medical testimony. Police charged Jamel Humphrey with the child’s murder, and speculated that the young man killed her when he learned that he was not the biological father of the child. Jamel Humphrey, now 24, avoided the death penalty when he pleaded guilty to malice murder last year and accepted a sentence of life without parole.
Department of Family and Children Services caseworkers had become involved with the family when the child was 3 months old and was diagnosed with a broken leg. Before a police searchfound the child’s battered body, Jamel Humphrey told family members she had been picked up by a DFCS worker. ”No instances of falsifications were found” in the review of two Clarke County case files by the Georgia Department of Human Resources, said Mimi Tarpley Benkoski, social services program administrator for Clarke County DFACS. DFACS is a division of the Department of Human Resources.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the case files of 13 children who died while in contact with Department of Family and Children Services offices in six Georgia counties — Clarke, Bibb, Glynn, Fulton, Cherokee and Sumter. ”We were requested by the governor to do an investigation of several cases. We are looking for violations of (state) law code section 16-10-20 — making false statements on official documents,” GBI spokeswoman Vicki Metz said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, GBI agents searched DFACS offices in Athens as well as the other five counties for records related to the child deaths. GBI officials said Tuesday that agents are looking for evidence of false statements made by caseworkers or administrators that do not accurately account for actions taken in individual cases.
The GBI came up empty-handed in Clarke County, however, because all the documents related to the two child abuse fatalities in question were sent to the governor’s office Friday, as requested by the Department of Human Resources, according to Gwen O’Looney, Clarke County DFACS director.
Metz said a child abuse task force of 10 to 15 agents will review the seized case files. Investigators are looking at child deaths that occurred between 1996 and 1998, she said. The state attorney general’s office is acting as the GBI’s legal adviser, but is not directly involved in the investigation, according to Daryl Robinson, a spokesman for the office. Robinson said there has not been any discussion about what will happen if criminal violations are found. If a crime is discovered, Robinson said, it could either be prosecuted by the attorney general’s office or by the local district attorney.
The GBI is focusing on the files of two fatal child abuse cases in Clarke County — 10-year-old Jamorio Marshall, who died Feb. 8, 1998 after being beaten with a belt for two hours, and 21-month-old Jalliyah Humphrey, who died June 3, 1997, the victim of a savage beating that fractured her skull and split her liver. Benkoski said she doesn’t think there is any way information in the case files on Jamorio or Jalliyah could have been falsified. ”Our policy when a child dies … is to immediately review all of our files to see if we had contact with the child,” Benkoski said.
If DFACS has been in contact with the child, Benkoski said ”we lock all of those files up … because we don’t want any opportunity for any doubt that information could be added to the files.”
”It’s sealed in the director’s office under lock and key and no one is allowed access until it’s released to the state (DFACS) office,” Benkoski said.
Jamorio was beaten to death with a belt strap by his mother and her boyfriend in February 1998, authorities said. A Clarke County Superior Court jury in September convicted Jamorio’s mother, Vernessa Marshall, of murder, but found her mentally retarded and sentenced her to life in prison. Vernessa Marshall’s boyfriend, Demetrius Paul, is awaiting trial in connection with the 10-year-old’s death.
In June 1998, Jalliyah was beaten to death by her father, Jamel Humphrey, who later pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to life in prison.
A series of articles published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month and a segment on the CBS News program ”60 Minutes” focusing on the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson of Atlanta has brought publicity to questionable child protective service practices in Georgia. The newspaper series, which focused on a number of individual cases in various Georgia counties, did not mention Clarke County. O’Looney said the Journal-Constitution requested information on nine children who died in Clarke County beginning in 1993. In each case, DFACS had been in contact with all of the children before the deaths, but only one was in foster care.
In addition to Jamorio and Jalliyah, there was a 1-month-old girl who died in June 1998 after being beaten. DFACS was notified of potential problems in the 1-month-old girl’s home just hours before she died. The girl’s death came before DFACS could make contact with the family. The other six deaths were the results of accidents, such as house fires, health problems or, in the case of one child, a shooting that police suspect was drug-related.