Special Report: Cracks in the System

Special Report: Cracks in the System
Nyelle Garrison (Source: Family)
Clarion Garrison surrendered to authorities in Ocala, FL. (Source: Marion Co., FL Sheriff's Office)
Clarion Garrison surrendered to authorities in Ocala, FL. (Source: Marion Co., FL Sheriff's Office)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - An Albany mother remains in jail, charged with concealing the death of her two and a half year old daughter.

A WALB News 10 investigation revealed shocking new information about the case, including a failed effort to remove the little girl from the home. It's part of a disturbing trend, hundreds of Georgia children dying each year even after having contact with agencies that are supposed to protect them.

A Division of Family and Children Services case manager showed up at this apartment March 2nd to check on little Nyelle Garrison and her siblings, hoping to close out the agency's case with the family. The mother claimed the girl was with her grandmother in Florida, but based on a DFCS investigation, that was a lie. A week later, police found Nyelle's body hidden in the apartment.

"The death was not reported, and the body was hidden," said Dougherty District Attorney  Greg Edwards.    

That's why Nyelle's mother, Clarion, was charged with concealing a death after authorities tracked her down in Florida. Prosecutors are now waiting for toxicology reports that hopefully will help determine the cause of death.

"That will make, of course, a significant difference in how the case proceeds," Edwards said.

Through an open records request, WALB obtained this report from DFCS that shows the agency had been working with the family since May 2014. That's when then eight-month old Nyelle suffered a serious medication overdose.

"It was an amount that was unusual that caused the child to be taken to the hospital," Edwards said.

Nyelle recovered and no criminal charges were filed, but the incident triggered a DFCS investigation. The report says the mother "appeared unconcerned for the child's health." DFCS substantiated allegations of inadequate supervision and placed Nyelle in foster care for six months until a Dougherty County juvenile judge ordered her returned to her mother over objections from DFCS.

"In the times that a judge decides that a child should go back, and we don't feel that that's the case, we make the best case possible for that, and there are many times that judges decide that and the child's just fine when they go back," said n Bobby Cagle, DFCS Director.

Nyelle's death is part of a larger issue. In 2014, county Child Fatality Review Committees in Georgia looked into 503 unexplained deaths. 53-percent of those children had prior involvement with DFCS or another protective agency.

DFCS Director Bobby Cagle says there are "relatively few cases" where his agency could have changed the outcome. "In the vast majority of those cases, in my estimation, we did what we could at the time, knowing what we knew," Cagle said.

Cagle admits DFCS was decimated during the recession, losing 900 frontline case workers, putting children in peril.n "I think given the magnitude of the number of positions that we lost during that time, I think it goes without saying that there was an increased danger to the children in the state."

DFCS has gotten 600 of those positions back over the last three years, and Cagle has instituted reforms he says better protect at-risk children.

"I am much more optimistic that I was two years ago. When I came in, we were in dire straits frankly," Cagle said.

But those reforms didn't save Nyelle Garrison. The DFCS report states her mother "did not initially appear to be very bonded with Nyelle" and at one point "requested her (parental) rights be terminated."

Before Nyelle's death case workers said Clarion Garrison "appeared more bonded with Nyelle" and was "attentive to Nyelle's needs."  Yet the DFCS report points out the two and a half year old weighed just 18-pounds when she died and during interviews after her death, her siblings made no mention of having a sister named Nyelle.

District Attorney Greg Edwards says the criminal investigation is ongoing on more charges against Clarion Garrison, and potentially other adults, are possible. "I hope we can get some answers, and like I said, whatever is the appropriate step to take next based on those forensic findings, this office will take."

Each year, the state puts together a Child Fatality Review Annual Report looking at the unexplained deaths around the state. You can read those reports here.

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