Atlanta police changes procedures following I-Team investigation into girl’s starving death

The death of a child in west Atlanta revealed major problems in Georgia's child protection services, showing police and social workers barely working together to find 4-year-old Treasure McWeay after her father allegedly kidnapped her.

With the FOX 5 I-Team continuing to ask questions, the Atlanta Police Department announced an overhaul in how it handles calls for assistance from the state Division of Family and Children Services. Calls about children in peril will be dispatched within two minutes and tracked over time to ensure proper follow-up, the department told the I-Team.

"We believe in being protectors of the innocent and we share the concerns brought to light after Treasure’s death," APD said in a statement provided by spokesman Sgt. John Chafee.

After allegedly kidnapping his three small children from their mother in Maryland, Rodney McWeay is accused of taking them back to the same residence DFCS had removed them from, then depriving them of food and water. (FOX 5)

An I-Team investigation found that during the five months between the kidnapping and Treasure’s death by starvation, DFCS asked police for help checking on Treasure and her brothers at least three times. Police officers and case workers were outside 31-year-old Rodney McWeay’s lower-level duplex unit on multiple occasions, but not at the same time, and not coordinating.

One legal expert told the I-Team that, under their own policies, Atlanta police had a duty to take "immediate action" in the case, but didn’t.

After one request for a welfare check, police didn’t go to the duplex at all, according to court testimony from a homicide detective. The second time, records show, an officer wasn’t dispatched until an hour and a half after a 911 call. The final time – less than a month before Treasure’s death – it took police almost five hours to arrive at the house.

When McWeay didn’t answer his door, case records show no further efforts to get inside the unit. After the girl died, police discovered she and her brothers had been locked inside, deprived of food and water.

Law professor and former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said McWeay’s door should have been kicked in.

Former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, who reviewed case files and police policies related to the McWeay case, said he was shocked to hear DFCS workers using 911 to call for police assistance. (FOX 5)

"My gosh, if you can’t go in a residence where you’ve got probable cause and a child has been abused, because they don’t answer the door, we’re in a serious problem," he said.

APD announced changes this week in how it will prioritize and track calls from DFCS requesting welfare checks. An internal investigation into APD’s handling of 911 calls in the McWeay case is ongoing, and APD officials would not comment beyond a written statement.

The statement, provided Wednesday, said Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum and Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce are working together to improve the relationship.

"Two changes are in the process of being implemented," the statement said. "First, calls involving a DFCS employee requesting assistance for a welfare check will be upgraded to a priority 2 call, requiring dispatch within 2 minutes.

"Second, the department is creating a new ‘Signal’ for calls involving a DFCS employee requesting assistance for a welfare check. The new Signal improves APD's ability to track data related to these calls and ensure proper action and follow-up occur," the statement said.

APD said it is also working with DFCS to schedule specialized training for officers, taught by DFCS workers.

A FOX 5 I-Team investigation found 4-year-old Treasure McWeay's life might have been saved had Atlanta police and DFCS been cooperating on gaining access into her father's west Atlanta duplex unit. She's seen here in a photo provided by a family frie

Treasure McWeay died Dec. 11, her body described as "just pure bone" by a detective in court last month.

Her father faces 15 felony charges, including malice murder. He's accused of kidnapping Treasure and her brothers, ages 3 and 5, after DFCS had removed them from his duplex unit in June over "deplorable" conditions and the children appearing malnourished, according to DFCS records. DFCS placed the children with their mother, who had fled to Maryland over alleged domestic violence.

Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Lauren McAuley said in a bond hearing last month that McWeay drove to Maryland and took the children back around July 6. In one of the 911 calls from DFCS, a case worker described the kidnapping to a dispatcher.

Rodney McWeay, 31, faces 15 felony charges in the death of his daughter, Treasure, and alleged abuse of his other children and their mother. A Fulton County judge denied him bond last month. (FOX 5)

"So here's the deal. Dad went up to Maryland this past July, like around Fourth of July, to see three children, ages 2, 4 and 5," the case manager said in a recording of the Oct. 30 call. "Mom had already come to get them a couple of months prior, because we had to pull them out the house because of deplorable conditions.

"Mom said it was raining, because she called it in to us," the DFCS worker told 911. "And so she said, ‘Let's sit in the car.’ So she sits in the car with the children. He strong-armed her, pushed her out, and stole the car with the kids."

The children wound up back in the same duplex unit they’d been removed from, where DFCS had previously noted the children seemed hungry, with mold on the walls, the stench of urine, no air on, and exposed wiring. McWeay is accused of keeping the children locked up and separated, monitored by surveillance cameras while he left them alone for long periods of time.

Wanda Polnitz, who knew McWeay through one of her daughter’s friends, said she reported him to DFCS in June, which led case workers to remove the children from the duplex. Polnitz said she kept Treasure and her brothers at her daycare center for several hours while they waited for their mother to pick them up. She thought the children were safe in Maryland, until she learned one of them died.

Wanda Polnitz said she tried to help Rodney McWeay and his children by setting them up with a live-in nanny. But that nanny only lasted three nights in the duplex unit, urging Wanda to call DFCS on McWeay. (FOX 5)

"They have to be more proactive," Polnitz said of police and DFCS. "If they think children are in danger, and somebody’s not answering the door, they should get a warrant to have the door kicked in."

Morgan, a criminal law professor at Western Carolina University, said police didn't need a warrant. For this story, he reviewed police records in the case, 911 calls, the DFCS case file and Atlanta Police’s Standard Operating Procedures.

"Usually in these cases, the whipping post is DFCS, and all the fingers point to DFCS as the reason that the child died and the case fell through the system," Morgan said. "That’s not the case here … When it comes down to the bottom line of why this child was starved to death, it’s because the police did not intervene when they ample opportunities to do so."  

Morgan gave several reasons for placing most of the blame on police.

According to APD's own policies, he said, the case should have been handed over to the department's Special Victims Unit, which would have a duty to take "immediate action" when a child is in danger and child protective services can't get into a home.

Also, under state law, every Georgia county must adopt a Child Abuse Protocol, describing how police, DFCS, judges, district attorneys and others will work together to prevent child abuse and neglect. Fulton County’s protocol has several pages describing how DFCS and law enforcement should be cooperating, but Morgan said he found no evidence of that in the McWeay case.

Morgan, who once chaired DeKalb County’s Child Abuse Protocol Committee, said he was shocked to hear DFCS using 911 to ask for police help.

"There should be a hotline between social (workers) and the police," he said. "If I had not heard the tapes myself, I would say somebody’s making a terrible mistake, that cannot be happening. But that’s exactly what is happening."

Fulton County’s Child Abuse Protocol Committee, the vehicle for collaboration efforts between departments, is chaired by Fulton County Executive District Attorney Daysha Young. She referred questions to a DA’s office spokesperson, who did not respond to messages from the I-Team.