Black highlighters? DFCS report on escape, sex assault an ink blot

State officials have found no fault with the Cobb County group home where three teenage girls escaped and then were sexually assaulted by a gang of men.

But officials won’t say much about why they absolved Heritage House, a faith-based group home that contracts with two state agencies, in the May 26 episode.

In interviews this week, officials with the state Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS, said an allegation of maltreatment (apparently, through a lack of supervision) was “screened out.” Typically, that means either that a complaint didn’t contain enough information to warrant an investigation or that the allegations, even if true, wouldn’t violate state laws or policies.

Heritage House, the officials said, is not a secure facility; the girls placed there were not locked inside.

For the public, details are scarce. But DFCS determined that the home did not violate policies, said Ashley Fielding, an agency spokeswoman.

“They did everything they could have done to protect these children,” she said.

But when DFCS released the report of its 073115 group home redactioninvestigation, large segments were blacked out by the agency’s lawyers. Under the heading “Risk Management Situation,” only the first two words are legible: “Heritage House …” The rest of the 10 or so lines in that section are redacted.

Another section, “Provider Self-Report/Assessment,” is a five-paragraph ink blot – black line after black line redacting the facility’s statement in its entirety.

Perhaps the DFCS lawyers were using black highlighters by accident.

Actually, the agency cites a state law as justification for the heavy redactions. Section 49-5-40 (b) of the Official Code of Georgia says, in part: “Each and every record concerning reports of child abuse … which is in the custody of the department or other state or local agency is declared to be confidential.”

That would seem to conflict with another section of the statutes: 50-18-71 (b)(1)(b), which says agencies may provide access to any record with confidential portions redacted – for instance, the name of a child in foster care.

Which provision takes precedence? With repeated strokes of a Sharpie, DFCS made its opinion clear.

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