Woman pleaded for DFCS help before child dies in fatal fire

Sylear Jackson says she begged DFCS to check on her grandchildren until one day, it was too late
Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 10:06 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2023 at 1:58 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Georgia’s child welfare system is under federal scrutiny after a series of Atlanta News First Investigations revealed what happens when the program is overburdened and understaffed.

But the case of a fatal fire at an East Point apartment complex shows how the system could mean life or death for children.

On Nov. 23, 2022, police found four-year-old Arielle Jackson’s body in an apartment fire that law enforcement believe was set by her mother, Nicole Jackson. Detectives allege Nicole Jackson killed her daughter and set the fire to conceal the crime. Arielle Jackson’s twin sister, Gabrielle, was rescued from the blaze.

“These kids right here, they [were] high risk from the beginning,” said Sylear Jackson, the suspect’s mother and the twins’ grandmother. “To experience this, there are no words. My life is in turmoil.”

Since 2019, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) investigated Nicole Jackson three times for alleged abuse and neglect of her toddlers.

In June 2022 - five months before a murder investigation would unfold - Sylear Jackson pleaded for a DFCS official to visit the home. State records reveal she told a caseworker:

  • The children were kicked out of daycare because mom stopped picking them up
  • Mom previously abandoned the twins for 12 days
  • There was no food in the home
  • Mom believed one of her twins “is the devil”

The caseworker, according to Sylear Jackson, said she was going to check on the family, but never did, despite home visits being outlined in DFCS policy. Instead, the caseworker requested East Point Police perform a welfare check.

East Point Police body camera footage obtained by Atlanta News First Investigates shows officers knocking on the door and Nicole Jackson letting them into the apartment.

“Can you bring them out so we can see them?” an officer asked about the twins. The entire police check lasted about seven minutes.

Former DFCS director Tom Rawlings said there’s a critical distinction between an assessment done by law enforcement compared to one performed by DFCS.

“A social worker is much more equipped to determine whether a child is safe,” he said, especially in cases of mental illness.

By 2022, Nicole Jackson had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with a family history of bipolar schizophrenia, Sylear Jackson said, adding she reported the diagnosis to DFCS.

Atlanta News First Investigates reviewed the redacted copy of the family’s file and the diagnosis does not appear to be in that version.

In addition to the case worker not performing the requested home inspection, she noted in the family’s file that police checked for sleep arrangements, food, and utilities. But according to East Point police body camera footage, officers did not.

The DFCS caseworker also did not know the girls’ correct age when she requested the police welfare check, according to dispatch records. The caseworker said the girls were two years old, not four.

“That sounds to me like an overloaded workforce, not necessarily a case manager that didn’t care,” Rawlings said.

(Atlanta News First Investigates is not identifying the caseworker assigned to the Jackson family as she is not facing any criminal or legal charges. She was later terminated for an unrelated policy violation, accessing files without clearance.)

Atlanta News First Investigates found the case worker was, in fact, “overloaded.”

Standards set by the federal courts outline limits for Fulton and DeKalb welfare workers as a way to minimize harm and errors. However, data analyzed by Atlanta News First Investigates shows the Jackson family caseworker was overloaded for three months last year, including the month she did not go out to the Jackson’s home.

In 2022, just for Fulton and DeKalb counties, monthly data reveals September had the highest number of overloaded caseworkers at 28.

Atlanta News First Investigates also tracked specific case totals across the two counties. Offices were overloaded monthly, with an excess of more than 100 cases.

Those numbers illustrate a dramatic change compared to 2021.

(Read more about the Kenny A vs. Sonny Perdue consent decree here.)

“The caseload is really unbearable,” said state Rep. Kim Schofield (D-Atlanta), who represents East Point in the General Assembly. “It’s really almost unfair at times.” She claimed DFCS needs an overhaul.

“We had a baby that died,” Schofield said. “We had a mother that needed help. We had a family that was begging for help. And the system failed.”

The system is the concern, according to the state’s independent oversight agency, the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate.

On July 19, 2022, the agency sent a letter to DFCS identifying 15 “systemic issues.” The letter alleged staff working from home are not traveling out as much to perform investigations; that substantiated cases are closed without case plans; and when multidisciplinary teams report children are in danger, DFCS does not respond.

The Department of Human Services (DHS), which is over DFCS, reviewed the allegations. After conducting its own investigation, DHS reported there was not enough evidence to indicate systemic statewide issues. Instead, DHS said the issues were limited to just one case or one office.

“She was an angel,” Jackson said of Arielle. “She was a lil’ leader, even had her spirituality. Very vocal, loved music, loved her sister.”

The Jackson family has retained an attorney, Valerie Vie. When asked if the family had any words for DFCS, Vie replied, “Why didn’t you help us?”

Sylear Jackson with a photo of one of her grandchildren.
Sylear Jackson with a photo of one of her grandchildren.(WANF)


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