Child welfare agency responds to 'Losing Hanna' -- sort of

Online comments shed light on how DFACS failed to save a teenage runaway

Hanna Montessori's family believes the state agency that took her from her mother's Stockbridge home had three chances to save her — and failed each time.

As a result, the 15-year-old, who was the subject of a two-part CL series, "Losing Hanna" (July 28 and Aug. 4), was able to run away from two group homes and evade authorities in two states.

In January 2004, four months after she ran away, Hanna was fatally beaten and dumped on a quiet California street, and her body lay in an Orange County morgue until April 2004, when police finally were able to identify her.

Hanna's case illuminates the sometimes complicated and contradictory protocol adopted by the state Division of Family and Children Services when it comes to tracking runaways. On the one hand, DFACS is supposed to do a better job of protecting children than their own families did. On the other, the agency's handling of Hanna's case shows DFACS might have missed several opportunities to save her.

Maxine Coffland, Hanna's grandmother, claims the first chance to protect Hanna came a week after she entered DFACS custody, based on a charge that her mother's boyfriend touched her inappropriately.

According to DFACS documents CL obtained through the state Open Records Act, Hanna told a DFACS social worker Aug. 21, 2003, that she intended to run away from the Henry County group home where she'd been staying. The next day, she did. The agency should have paid closer attention to Hanna's claim, Coffland says.

Police picked up Hanna a couple of days later. But even then, DFACS placed no additional restrictions on her, according to DFACS documents. A month later, she ran away from a group home again, and wound up dead in California.

A month before her death, however, Hanna was arrested in Los Angeles and gave a fake name and birth date. Her family says that had DFACS made certain that Hanna's info had been sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, L.A. police would have stood a greater chance of figuring out her actual identity — before she was killed.

For months, CL attempted to get DFACS' comments on Hanna's case, as well as clarification of DFACS' policies regarding runaways. On Aug. 10, a week after the second part of "Losing Hanna" was published, Ari Young, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFACS, responded to CL's questions. Young said via e-mail that he only would answer questions "of a general nature"; two DFACS caseworkers who responded to "Losing Hanna" on an online message board offered additional insight. Their comments are included after Young's.

Note: Spelling and grammatical errors have been fixed.

Creative Loafing: Does DFACS try to put in place extra precautions for children who have run away from DFACS custody in the past?

Young: Yes, in a situation where there is a reasonable expectation that a child may try to run away, or where a child has done so in the past, DFACS will take extra precautions to ensure the safety of the child. These precautions begin with a careful assessment of the foster or group home in which the child is placed. ... DFACS will also reimburse homes to install alarm equipment in their home, should it be deemed necessary to safeguard the child.

Fulton County DFACS worker: Group homes can only do so much to protect children. Many have alarms so they will know when children are trying to run away. To get a child in a locked facility is very hard and they have to be very mentally ill, i.e., schizophrenic, or violent. Hanna, in my opinion, could have used a locked facility, but unfortunately we have to have a lot of proof that one is needed before they can go.

What is DFACS' protocol/policy/practice for alerting authorities to a runaway juvenile? What information is DFACS required to share with law enforcement?

Young: As soon as DFACS receives information that a foster child has run away, DFACS will notify the juvenile court and the police. DFACS will also file a runaway petition, which functions similar to a missing persons report (alerting authorities that a child is a runaway and to detain that child).

DFACS worker: It's hard when you have a caseload of 38 children and 10 of them are placed all over the state of Georgia. Those families are not going to get all the attention they deserve, because it's hard to manage a caseload that high. An average worker should only have 15 children. The policies and procedures are what need to be changed.

Our agency does offer a variety of trainings throughout the year, but we have not had any on runaways. You learn things by dealing with everyday cases. Policies change all the time, so as soon as you learn something, it might be changed the next month.

Does DFACS have any responsibility to alert law enforcement to ... info that could lead to the discovery of the runaway?

Young: Naturally, if DFACS receives any information regarding the whereabouts of a runaway, that information will be shared with the appropriate authorities.

DFACS worker: I've been employed with DFACS for three years and I've had many children on my caseload run away. Our protocol is to contact the authorities in the county [where] they ran away and give all the details we can. We are then supposed to contact the relatives. To be honest, I had never heard about the database that Hanna's family spoke of. It is not something they tell us to use. I will start using it for my runaways, though.

Hopefully, Hanna can be remembered as a child who helped change the system for other children.

A veteran caseworker: To the Fulton County DFACS worker who gave their perspective, "You hit the nail on the head." For those of you who don't know the DFACS system, that worker is correct and that is reality with DFACS. And yes, I will be using National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as a resource now that I know that exists.

To read "Losing Hanna," click here and for part two, click here.

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