Officials at the Division of Family and Children Services previously discussed whether it would be better to have a call center receive reports about child abuse rather than delegating that task to each county office, DFCS Director Ron Scroggy said.
That discussion has intensified since two supervisors at the division's Columbus office were arrested this month and charged with destroying, delaying or otherwise tampering with initial reports about suspected child abuse. Authorities at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said they were examining whether supervisors in the office systematically falsified information so it would appear they were meeting internal guidelines.
"We believe it would be in everyone's interest to move to a centralized, 24-hour intake system," Scroggy said in an interview.
Scroggy said he is unaware of any evidence that children were harmed as a result of the alleged document tampering. But the probe is ongoing.
"... We'll have to wait and see what the investigation leads us to," he said.
In the meantime, DFCS has sent agency leaders and a specialized five-person team from its central office to assist the branch in Columbus because its intake supervisor, Phyllis Mitchell, and former acting director, Deborah Cobb, were arrested Sept. 5 on two state charges accusing them of document tampering. Mitchell and Cobb did not return calls seeking comment. They have been suspended with pay from their state jobs, according to agency records.
One staffer from the agency's central office has been sitting with the workers in Columbus who answer phone calls reporting child abuse, said Kathy Herren, the division's deputy director. That outside staffer signs off on every report.
"We've talked with staff about the importance of their work and their job and the need to import all that work into the system," Herren said.
The division already operates a call center in Albany that handles after-hours reports of suspected child abuse for most of the state outside Atlanta. Division officials said that call center could be expanded on a trial basis to handle daytime calls for Columbus and other nearby offices. Scroggy estimated that effort would cost about $500,000 through June, but he emphasized the spending figure was preliminary.
The probe in Columbus started in 2008, according to a brief memo that the Georgia Department of Human Services sent to lawmakers.
At the time, Georgia was under pressure to improve the performance of its child protection agency. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families penalized the state for failing to meet key requirements by cutting some of its child-related funding by an average of about $732,000 annually for nine years starting in late 2000, according to Ravae Graham, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees DFCS.
To get that money back, Georgia officials created improvement plans. The last plan focused in part on improving how the agency handled initial reports of child abuse. Under the plan, DFCS agreed to revise and update its policies for handling those calls and to retrain its staff. County offices were evaluated on whether they met the overall goals in the plan.
DFCS officials will likely face questions about the arrests when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who heads the Human Resources Subcommittee. She expects that discussion to happen when lawmakers review the agency's budget.
"I think we're going to have to see what the process reveals," Dempsey said. "I feel good there is some light shining on the concerns."