DFCS stands by firing of supervisor over Gwinnett rolling pin beating case

The state’s child protection agency has made a final decision about who it holds responsible for closing an abuse investigation that might have saved a Gwinnett County girl’s life.  

The decision isn’t what a fired social worker hoped to hear. After former supervisor Alexandria Armah spoke out to the FOX 5 I-Team, the state Division of Family and Children Services said it would reexamine its reasons for terminating her employment. 

A makeshift memorial has been set up outside the home on Vine Springs Trace in Gwinnett County, where Sayra Barros, 8, allegedly suffered a fatal beating on Jan. 30. (FOX 5)

Fired DFCS workers don’t have appeal rights, but the agency took a second look after Armah said publicly that she wasn’t the one who closed a prior case involving 8-year-old Sayra Barros – later allegedly beaten to death by her stepmother with a wooden rolling pin.

But the state agency told the I-Team it checked its records, and its decision to part ways with Armah stands. 

Alexandria Armah told the FOX 5 I-Team she hoped DFCS would reexamine its reasons for firing her and find out who actually closed an abuse case too early. But the agency said it stands by its decision to terminate her employment. (FOX 5)

"I think that's kind of crazy," Armah said. "Had I been the one to really close the case, or to have any (handling of) the case, there definitely would have been some different measures that would have been taken."

Both Armah and a case manager she supervised, Shetial Wingard, lost their jobs in February. Personnel records obtained by the I-Team show that an internal review faulted them for mishandling a prior complaint about Sayra’s stepmother and father, both indicted in the child's death. 

Cledir Barros, 37, and Natiela Barros, 34, remain in the Gwinnett County jail without bond. Natiela is charged with malice murder, two counts of felony murder, aggravated assault and cruelty to children. Cledir is charged with second-degree murder and two counts of child cruelty.

The earlier DFCS complaint about them came from Sayra’s school, Harbins Elementary. Sayra had come to school before with "visible injuries" on her head and other parts of her body, then in November her father told school officials that the girl "had demons in her because she was born out of wedlock," Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Megan Matteucci said during a March bond hearing.

DFCS records say the death of Sayra Barros prompted an internal review, which found a pattern by Case Manager Shetial Wingard, and her supervisor, Alexandria Amrah, of closing cases too soon. Both women were fired Feb. 15.

According to DFCS documents obtained by FOX 5, the complaint quoted the father saying "the child had two personalities and was causing a problem with his current marriage due to her being born out of wedlock."

He also "admitted that the (stepmother) loses her cool and disciplines the child inappropriately causing bruising," the state records show.

That case was closed after 38 days. DFCS told the I-Team that the case manager found no evidence of abuse or neglect, and her supervisor approved closing the complaint. 

Statements made by a prosecutor in a bond hearing revealed that a Nov. 14 complaint about Sayra Barros' parents, described in this passage from DFCS records, came from her school, Harbins Elementary. 

Armah, though, said in an exclusive interview that during most of the investigation into the Barros family, she wasn’t even in Gwinnett County, but in a classroom at a technical college in Griffin for mandatory supervisor training. She said the training lasted until Jan. 4, almost two weeks after the Barros case was closed.

She said her case manager, Wingard, couldn’t have closed the case on her own. Armah told the I-Team who she suspects actually made the decision, and it involves people in higher positions with Gwinnett County DFCS. The I-Team reached out to some of the people she named, but received no response.

"To me, it's a matter of protecting one of their own as opposed to the smaller fish in the pond," Armah said. "I’m the smaller fish in the pond. My case manager was the smallest fish in the pond. So it was save them or save one of us. And we were the scapegoats."

Alexandria Armah told the FOX 5 I-Team she found a new job and isn't looking to be reinstated by DFCS. But she's defending her reputation, she said. (FOX 5)

In an email recommending Armah and Wingard be fired, then-Gwinnett DFCS Director Travis Moses cited a "pattern of closing … cases (particularly when child vulnerability is high) without fully assessing for safety of the children," saying they should be let go for "reckless assessment decisions/conduct." 

Moses, now a DFCS regional director, said the review found three other cases that needed to be reopened. Wingard’s termination papers cited several policy violations, including falsifying records.

A little over a month after the Barros case was closed, Sayra’s stepmother became angry with her for playing with her toast and not doing her school work, a statement from the Gwinnett County DA's office said. An initial spanking allegedly escalated into the stepmother retrieving a rolling pin from the kitchen.

Prosecutors said Natiela Barros struck the child 10 to 20 times on the back of the head, neck and arms. When the child fell ill and lost consciousness, Natiela called her husband at work, who told her to pray, the DA’s office said.

Cledir Barros (left) and Natiela Barros are both being held in the Gwinnett County jail without bond, charged in the killing of 8-year-old Sayra Barros. (FOX 5)

When Cledir Barros arrived home, he prayed over the unconscious child for between 10 and 20 minutes before calling 911, prosecutors said.

Matteucci, who heads the DA’s office’s special victims unit, said during the bond hearing, "The investigation found that the victim child could have been saved if she had received medical attention sooner."

The Barros family lived in this Gwinnett County home, in Bethlehem, before the alleged beating death of Sayra Barros on Jan. 30. 

Armah said DFCS tarnished her name by pinning blame on her. A single mother with two sons, she spent seven years working for DFCS and had been promoted to supervisor in October. 

She said she's already found a new job, in a leadership position in the medical field, so she’s not asking to be reinstated. Rather, she says, she wants to protect her reputation.

"The truth will come out," Armah said. "And I would like an apology. It goes a long way." 

That doesn’t appear to be forthcoming.

A DFCS spokeswoman provided a written statement: "Our records show that Ms. Armah did approve the case for closure in her role as a supervisor and we have no evidence of her discussing the case closure plans with any other agency leadership. It is also worth noting that case closure in our system is a complex process that is extremely secure to ensure the privacy of the families we serve."

With the Barros case file provided by DFCS heavily redacted, it’s not clear who acted as supervisor on the prior complaint or who approved closing the case. 

The I-Team asked DFCS for documentation backing up its account of Armah closing the case. The agency provided what it described as a line of data from its case management system, showing an "Investigation Conclusion" of "Barros, Cledir" on "12/22/2023," with the name "Armah, Alexandr." 

Alexandria Armah told the I-Team who she suspects actually made the decision to close a prior investigation into the Barros family, and it involves people in higher positions with Gwinnett County DFCS, pictured here. (FOX 5)

Shown the record, Armah laughed.

"I can't believe this is what they produced to you," she said, calling the record "a copy and paste, a cover-up."

"It definitely wouldn't look like that," she said of the case management system. "And like I said, with the dates that they're presenting, I was in training."