Welts, not welfare: Boss's protective maneuvers send a message that undermines DFCS mission children's safety
By Maureen Downey, AJC.com (Atlantic Journal-Constitution,) January 29, 2008

It was bad enough when Fayette County police arrested high-ranking child welfare official Cylenthia Clark for allegedly striking her own young daughter with a belt 34 times on the back, arms, legs and face. Now it appears that Clark's boss, Division of Family and Children Services director Mary Dean Harvey, pressured Fayette child welfare workers to bend policy to protect Clark.

A damning report by the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate cites numerous interventions by Harvey on behalf of Clark, assistant director of the Fulton County DFCS office. Because it involved a top DFCS employee, this case was fraught with mine fields that demanded that Harvey tread carefully.

Instead, the report of the child advocate suggests that Harvey thudded through the investigation, pushing the DFCS office in Fayette, where Clark lived, to bend rules and give Clark special treatment. According to Fayette DFCS director Mary Davis, Harvey told her, "I'm sure that you've never spanked your child, but if you had, you would know that they wiggle, and you will hit everything but the back end."

If Harvey uttered that bizarre statement, she has handed every parent in Georgia charged with child abuse a fresh line of defense: "I didn't mean to strike my 6-year-old's face, but she put her face in the path of the belt."

Davis told investigators that she received 20 calls at home on a Saturday from the state office pressing her to give custody of Clark's four children to Clark's mother. She said Harvey directed her office to place the children with the grandmother rather than the father because of "a big custody battle." (The kids are now with the dad.)

Davis also said that Harvey warned her that she would be held "personally responsible" for the case and that her office would be "under particular scrutiny." The case manager told investigators she feared for her job.

The Clark case and Harvey's alleged interference sully the credibility and integrity of the child welfare system, yet Department of Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker has remained eerily quiet. She has allowed Harvey to simply wave off all the allegations by the Fayette staff, laid out in a detailed 12-page report by the advocate's office.

This summer, a grand jury indicted Clark on one charge of first-degree child cruelty stemming from the February incident in which police contend that she beat her child hard enough to leave marks that caused the school to alert social services. While awaiting trial, Clark has taken her case to the public, creating an incendiary personal Web site where she accuses Fayette County child welfare workers of incompetence, genocide, racism and nepotism. The last allegation is interesting, given that Clark got her $73,000-a-year job because she knew Walker when both worked in Chicago.

She also offers her own defense for the marks on her daughter: "Why were there marks? ... because I must admit in the hurry of the day I picked up a belt I had never used before. It was thicker than the one I had used in the past ... secondly in the rush of preparing dinner for the other children she was getting changed for bed I walked in and explained her punishment began to spank her; she jumped around and thus the marks."

Not only does she attack her own agency on the Web site, but Clark also asks other aggrieved parents to contact her. (She further solicits donations for her legal fund.)

After her investigation of the case, former Georgia child advocate Dee Simms told Walker that her office was "gravely concerned that Ms. Clark was still employed by the state agency charged with the protection of abused and neglected children. ... Allowing Ms. Clark to remain an employee of Georgia DFCS sends the wrong message to the public, the message that the state DFCS office believes that is acceptable for an employee to abuse her own children."

That is the exact message conveyed by Clark's continued employment and Walker's silence on this unsettling case.

Maureen Downey, for the editorial board


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