Less than two years ago, Markea Berry was found by police wandering the aisles of a Walmart in Smyrna, Georgia. The then 14-year-old girl looked undernourished and told police she ran away from home because she didn’t want to be a burden on her mother, Ebony Perry. Now Markea is dead and her mother has been charged with murder. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
At the time of [Markea’s] death in June she weighed 43 pounds. [Ebony Perry] is accused of starving her daughter to death despite multiple investigations over nearly 10 years by child protection workers in Michigan and later in Georgia.
The last time the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services had contact with the family — a couple of months after Markea’s Walmart escapade in 2010 — the caseworker and supervisor noted their concerns that Markea was undernourished. But the agency closed the case after Berry sidestepped efforts to compel her to get medical attention for Markea and her siblings.
The case files show Perry had a long history of evading and intimidating child welfare case workers assigned to investigate her family. When case workers did manage to speak to Berry’s other children, they said Berry had told them to never speak to outsiders–especially social workers. This disturbing pattern of sidestepping the system has raised the ire of local experts over how the Cobb County Division of Children and Family Services handled Markea’s case:
Melissa Carter, the former state Child Advocate, described the state’s handling of Markea’s case “shocking.”
Even leaving aside the agency’s legal responsibilities, if a caseworker suspects that a child is not being fed, “it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be some follow up, from the human standpoint, just to have some peace of mind,” said Carter, now the executive director of Emory Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center.
“It’s a horrendous case,” agreed Alice McQuade of the advocacy group Better Courts for Kids. “It’s just so hard, the idea of her slowly starving to death.”
The intense scrutiny surrounding this case has even led DCFS’ director to admit that his department failed:
Markea’s is a death that should never have happened, said DFCS Director Ron Scroggy.
“This case should have remained open and a care plan should have been put in place and followed up on,” he said.
However, Markea’s case may have been a direct result of a department strategy known as “diversion,” Which calls for reducing caseloads by referring families to social service providers, rather than taking children into custody:
“Obviously Markea Berry was not a case appropriate for diversion. Clearly she should have been removed,” [McQuade] said, adding that she fears there are other stories like Markea’s that have yet to surface.
“…this child fell through the cracks,” said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children.
In Markea’s case, he said, agency workers “went in and saw red flags and did nothing about it.”