By: John Munford
Emails, records indicate State Director Harvey pressured Fayette DFCS officials for favorable treatment of Fulton official arrested for child cruelty, tried to influence criminal probe, warned that local officials ‘will pay for what happened today’; Clark’s highly placed friends.
Soon after Fulton child welfare official Cylenthia Clark was arrested in Fayetteville on felony child cruelty charges March 9, state officials began pressuring Fayette Department of Family and Children Services workers to drop the case, according to documents obtained from the Georgia Office of Child Advocate.
Clark, a Fayetteville resident who at the time was assistant director of Fulton County’s Department of Family and Children Services, is accused of striking her 8-year-old daughter multiple times with a belt, leaving bruises on the child’s arms, legs and back while the child was clad only in her underwear.
Emails to OCA from Fayette DFCS Director Mary Davis said state DFCS Director Mary Harvey several times threatened Davis and her staff with vague remarks of retribution for proceeding with the deprivation petitionin Fayette County Juvenile Court. Those emails indicate that Harvey told Davis the injuries to Clark’s daughter did not rise to child abuse, and that “she would have nipped this (the investigation of Mrs. Clark) in the bud” had she seen photos of the victim earlier.
Those emails, along with a detailed investigative case summary from the OCA investigator, were provided after The Citizen filed an open records request on the case. The emails from Fayette DFCS Director Davis described the behind-the-scenes power play that unfolded after Clark, who formerly worked for the city of Chicago under now-Georgia Department of Human Resources chief B.J. Walker, was arrested in Fayetteville.
According to those emails and the OCA investigation, Fayette DFCS employees were overruled by state DFCS director Mary Dean Harvey and others under her employ who ordered the 8-year-old victim and her three siblings to be removed from the initial foster homes where they were placed the day after Clark’s arrest and put in the custody of Mrs. Clark’s mother. One week after Clark’s arrest, a state DFCS supervisor indicated to an OCA investigator that state director Harvey herself was supervising the case against Clark.
State DFCS Director Harvey, in an editorial published in Tuesday’s edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, claimed that she never threatened an employee regarding the Clark case.
“First of all, at no time and under no conditions did I ever threaten an employee,” Harvey wrote. “What is fact is that I did get involved in what was certainly a high profile case to ensure that no special favors were extended to Clark, and to be sure she was treated like any other Georgia citizen.”
Harvey also said in the editorial that she did not berate DFCS staffers for decisions that were made, saying “there was no such ill treatment or intimidation.”
In a separate DHR investigation, Clark confirmed that she previously worked with DHR Commissioner Walker in Chicago when Clark was Chief of Policy and Programs at the Chicago Housing Authority and Walker was Chief of Human Infrastructure for the mayor’s office. According to Clark, they also worked together when Clark became an assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Aging.
Although none of the documents indicate that DHR Commissioner Walker was active in any aspect of the Fayette DFCS investigation on Clark, Walker is responsible for the state DFCS agency because it is under her supervision. Walker also saw to it that Clark was hired by DFCS by selecting her without sorting through other applicants for the Fulton assistant DFCS director’s position “because her performance history was known to the commissioner (Walker),” according to a separate investigation into DHR hiring practices conducted by DHR agents in March through June.
On her website, Clark admits taking a belt to the child, but says she chose the wrong one, implying that the thicker belt led to the injuries. Fayette County Juvenile Court Judge Ben J. Miller Jr. ruled after a May 11 hearing that Clark deprived the child, several sources confirmed as records are not released to the public and the court hearing was not open to the public.
Judge Miller at the time did not revoke Mrs. Clark’s custody of the victim nor the three other girls, as their father, Cylenthia Clark’s estranged husband John Clark had already been awarded custody of the children by courts in Chicago.
According to one of the earlier emails produced via an open records request, Harvey explained away the child’s injuries, which were documented by photographs.
“Mrs. Harvey stated that she did not see anything wrong with the pictures (and) asked me to tell her what was so bad about the pictures,” the email said.
State DFCS Director Harvey also suggested that the punishment was not “premeditated,” one email said.
“Mrs. Harvey stated that I had probably never spanked a child but that when you spank a child and they wiggle you will hit them everywhere but where you intend to hit them,” the email from Davis read. “Mrs. Harvey stated that if she had seen the pictures to begin with she would have nipped this in the bud. … Mrs. Harvey stated that ‘you will not support the dad’ and Fayette County needs to be educated.”
The emails from Fayette DFCS Director Davis to the Child Advocate also claim that state DFCS officials declined to turn over the victim and her three sisters to their father, John Clark, after he came to Atlanta the day following Cylenthia Clark’s arrest.
Mr. Clark, according to the OCA investigation, had joint legal custody of the children, and the Fayette child protective services supervisor believed the girls would be better off in his care than in a foster home, Davis said in one of her emails to OCA.
Instead the Fayette DFCS office was overruled by the state office, and less than 12 hours after Mrs. Clark’s arrest, regional DFCS director Gwendora Bailey ordered the children to be removed from the two foster homes where they had initially been placed and instead taken to live with Mrs. Clark’s mother, according to one of the emails.
“I called Mrs. Bailey and gave her the information. She called back and said the father is not to get the children,” one email said. “We are to proceed with the grandmother’s placement.”
The placement was in violation of DFCS policies, which require a criminal background check and drug screening of foster parents in addition to a walk-through of the home.
It wasn’t until one week later that Fayette Juvenile Court Judge Ben J. Miller Jr. awarded temporary custody of the children to Mr. Clark.
DHR spokesperson Dena Smith declined to answer any of The Citizen’s questions directly for this story but issued the following statement, which is printed in its entirety:
“Privacy laws permit us from discussing details of any child welfare case. It is inappropriate to respond about a legal issue that is currently a part of the court system. I don’t think it would be fair to your readers or appropriate to comment on hearsay. It is not uncommon for the department to place children in the home of relatives. In situations when we are unable to run a drug screen or obtain criminal history checks on people on the weekend, holiday or after hour scenarios, staff is encouraged to make a decision in the child’s best interest. Policy does not assure children are protected; people assure protection of children.”
In a conversation with an investigator from the Office of Child Advocate, Davis said regional DFCS director Bailey took the child placement actions at state DFCS director Harvey’s direction. Bailey told an OCA investigator that she told “state administration” that Mr. Clark was in town and that the request was for the children to be placed with the maternal grandmother.
Director Harvey previously has defended the agency’s custody decision, saying it’s “not unusual practice to place children with relatives and delay the background check and drug screening over a weekend or a holiday.”
State DFCS Director Harvey’s interest in the case was further documented with an email regarding conversations she had with Fayette DFCS Director Davis after a Fayette juvenile court judge ruled that Mr. Clark could take custody of the children and take them back to Chicago.
“Mrs. Harvey stated that this must be a rogue judge,” Davis wrote in her email to OCA. “Mrs. Harvey was very angry during this conversation and hung up on me two times. She stated that our staff does not know what they are doing and that from now on Fayette staff will be under particular scrutiny and will pay for what happened today.”
Regional DFCS Director Bailey, in a March 16 conversation with an OCA investigator, said she thought Fayette DFCS had handled the case appropriately.
“Ms. Bailey stated that she had even gotten flack for not finding red flags when she reviewed the case,” according to the investigator’s notes. “Mrs. Bailey stated that she has been ‘out of the loop’ on this case since Monday and that Ms. Harvey was now the point person for this case.”
The emails from Fayette DFCS Director Davis document assertions from state DFCS director Harvey that the special assistant attorney general, who represents Fayette DFCS in court, should have argued that the children remain in Georgia until the end of the school year.
“(Harvey) stated that the SAAG works for us and should be following our instructions because he said there is no deprivation on the part of the father,” the email said.
Another email from Davis documented Harvey’s comments about Mr. Clark’s involvement in a previous court hearing after Mrs. Clark’s arrest.
“She wanted to know why the father was involved in the proceeding. Wanted to know why SAAG was supporting the father. I told her that was not what happened. The SAAG told the judge that the father was present and not part of the deprivation proceeding.”
State DFCS Director Harvey asked for the entire case file to be emailed to her three days after the arrest, according to one email from Fayette DFCS Director Mary Davis to OCA. Later, Mrs. Clark displayed the photos of her daughter — which had been taken by the Fayette DFCS caseworker — during an appearance on a local TV station to proclaim her innocence.
Typically parents accused of deprivation are not allowed to have possession of photos, even copies of photos, until the deprivation case is concluded in court.
Harvey has previously defended the records being transmitted to Mrs. Clark in a letter to the editor that was published April 18.
“In keeping with JJ vs Ledbetter, a court ruling that gives parents the right to evidence gathered regarding an allegation of abuse or neglect, DFCS released those photos to her,” Harvey wrote. “We would and should do the same thing for any parent who asks.”
The OCA investigative report noted that one state DCFS employee at the regional level said she was told “that any request of information on this case was to be relayed verbally and not on an email.”
Fayette DFCS Director Davis relayed in another email to OCA that she was given the same directive: “All contacts are to be by phone. Mrs. Harvey fears an open records request.”
After her arrest, Mrs. Clark was transferred from her position as assistant director for Fulton County DFCS to implementation coordinator of the statewide automated child welfare information system, a position with the Georgia Department of Human Services, the umbrella agency over DFCS.
The criminal case against Mrs. Clark is still pending in Fayette County Superior Court and she recently switched attorneys, hiring high-profile Atlanta attorney Manny Arora. The girls are in their father’s custody in Chicago and Mrs. Clark has visitation privileges instead of full physical custody.
On her website, Mrs. Clark says her daughter received “10 licks with the belt,” and explains the marks by saying she inadvertently used a belt that she hadn’t used before because she had been in a hurry.
“It was thicker than the one I had used in the past,” Clark says on the site, also saying that the resulting red marks were due to the child jumping around as she was struck with the belt.
“This is really how it happened,” Clark says on the site. “The red marks were gone the next night. No parent ever wants to hurt their child. A parent does have the right to discipline a child for misbehaving.”
Clark also uses the site to criticize the way Fayette DFCS handled the investigation, saying a pediatrician’s report that the child hadn’t been abused physically or emotionally was discounted.
Mrs. Clark also takes a swipe at “the remaining horror and dysfunction of this particular county,” adding that “The judges, district attorneys, circuit clerks, court clerks, newspaper reporters, police officers and sheriff are ALL RELATED!!!! ALL WHITE!!!”
Since her arrest, Clark has moved from Fayetteville to a residence in Fulton County, and DFCS child protection workers in Clayton County were assigned the task of preparing a course of action for conditions under which she would be allowed to regain custody of the children.
The investigation conducted by the Office of Child Advocate remains open at this time because OCA is waiting for the criminal case to be resolved before closing the file, according to OCA documents released to The Citizen.
Because of the pending criminal case, OCA officials said some documents regarding the case were withheld, which is allowed under Georgia law.
Clark’s first two months of work as assistant director for Fulton County also raised some eyebrows, sparking an investigation by DHR officials. That probe determined that Clark was allowed to work from her Chicago home for two months before she moved to Georgia.
The investigation also revealed that Clark’s superior, then-Fulton County DFCS Director Kenneth Joe, authorized the “telework” arrangement against Department of Human Resources policy. According to a copy of the investigative report, Clark’s job description involved supervising program administrators in the social services section of Fulton DFCS, but Clark said she only spoke to Joe and his executive assistant during the time she teleworked.