A case involving a Hall County woman who left her three young children home alone and hungry illustrates the need to revise a state law that protects confidential child welfare records, a local prosecutor said.
Kellie Ann Dorsey pleaded no contest in Hall County State Court this week to three counts of reckless conduct in connection with allegations that she left her children, ages 8, 6 and 2, alone in their Union Church Road home for at least 14 hours Halloween night and the following morning, Hall County Assistant Solicitor Craig Pake said.
Pake said that a pair of door-to-door evangelists discovered the children were home alone late that morning. The children did not know where their mother was, said they were hungry, and asked the couple not to leave them, Pake said.
Authorities were able to confirm that the children had not eaten in some time, Pake said.
Dorsey claimed the children were with a baby sitter when she left about 9 p.m. Halloween night to get some medicine for a friend, but authorities found no evidence to support her story, Pake said.
On Monday, Dorsey, 30, was sentenced by Judge Larry Baldwin to 10 days in jail and required to complete a parenting class. Dorsey had already served the jail time and taken the parenting class prior to her plea.
Hall County Solicitor-General Stephanie Woodard, the county’s chief prosecutor of misdemeanors, said local state Division of Family and Children Services officials opened a case on Dorsey’s family, but she was unable to get access to the records when she requested them from the agency.
"All we had to go on were the facts of this case and that one night," Woodard said.
A state DFCS spokesperson was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Georgia law protects the confidentiality of certain DFCS records, with several exceptions. District attorneys, who mainly prosecute felonies, are allowed "reasonable access to DFCS records," according to the law. Solicitors are not.
Woodard said it would have been helpful to view the family’s case file in deciding how to handle Dorsey’s criminal case.
"It would help us decide what is the most appropriate disposition," Woodard said. In some cases, making DFCS recommendations part of the court sentence could be an option, she said.
Woodard is pushing for passage of a law sponsored by State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, that was introduced this year but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee. The law would change the wording of the confidentiality exemption to include "district attorneys and solicitors-general" or simply "prosecuting attorneys" as officials who are allowed access to DFCS files.
"It’s clear from the legislative intent that they wanted DFCS and prosecutors to share resources so that kids don’t have to be retraumatized by multiple interviews," Woodard said.
Even if the solicitor wanted to conduct her own investigation into the case, her resources are limited. The office currently has no investigators. And in neglect cases involving children who are not obviously injured, the police investigation "stops with uniform patrol," Woodard said.
Rogers expressed disappointment Tuesday that the change in the law was not made in the last legislative session.
"This issue is very important and more important than some of the other matters we handled this year," Rogers said.
The bill was at the center of a dispute that erupted in the waning days of the legislative session between Rogers and members of the Senate Rules Committee. Rogers accused committee members of killing the bill over a problem they had with him regarding an unrelated transportation issue.
Rogers, during an April 1 speech at the capital, angrily accused the committee of ignoring the plight of children.
State Senate Rule Committee Chairman Don Balfour denied that the bill was killed over politics.
Rogers noted Tuesday that the bill passed the House unanimously and he heard no opposition from DFCS or anyone else to the change in the confidentiality law.
"It should come back up this next year," Rogers said. "It should have passed (this year), but unfortunately it did not."