Prosecutors fear for evidence after DFCS pair reinstated in Georgia

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 2, 2013 

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services has reinstated two workers arrested last year for falsifying documents at its Muscogee County office, prompting prosecutors to seek a court order Monday denying the pair access to any records related to their case.

The case stems from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's raiding the local office on Sept. 5, 2012, to seize records related to child abuse. They arrested Deborah Cobb, who for 18 months had been the office's acting director, and Phyllis Mitchell, an intake supervisor. Each was charged with felony false swearing and falsifying documents, authorities said.

Investigators suspect the two of concealing evidence of child abuse to cut the number of new reports. The division commonly referred to as DFCS operates under the state's Department of Human Services, or DHS.

"No DHS employee has any reason or incentive to hide allegations of abuse or neglect in order to lower the number of children and families to be entered into the state system," department commissioner Clyde Reese III said at the time.

Initially the two were suspended, but prosecutors learned Nov. 19 that they had been reinstated, though not in Muscogee County. Cobb, 47, now works at the agency's Harris County office, and Mitchell, 55, is in Chattahoochee County, their attorneys said.

Both went back to work about a month ago, with neither now in child protective services, lawyers said.

Assistant District Attorneys Letitia Sikes and William Hocutt IV filed motions Nov. 21 asking Superior Court Judge Gil McBride to ensure the suspects have no access to a database the state uses to track child abuse reports. The computer network is known as "SHINES," and the two are accused of using it to falsify reports.

Sikes told McBride the workers are accused not only of falsifying records themselves, but of directing others to do so.

Hocutt said authorities seized about six months' worth of records when they raided the Muscogee DFCS office last year, but more records likely will be needed and those could be at risk if not preserved.

In the motion, Sikes wrote: "Defendants will have access to records and personnel and will be able to destroy, modify or falsify evidence in the pending criminal cases." She asked that McBride "ensure defendants have no contact with evidence that is the subject of this investigation or which may become the subject of investigation and no contact with material witnesses."

Columbus attorney Clark Adams represents Mitchell, and attorney Stacey Jackson represents Cobb. Each said his client no longer has access to the SHINES database. They work in training and use only training programs, the attorneys said.

Hocutt said prosecutors have been getting little cooperation in their inquiries about the workers' current assignments. "Our issue is we have no idea what they're doing," he said.

Representing DFCS was Special Assistant Attorney General Sherry Goodrum. "These are internal matters," she said of the women's current positions. The agency considers them innocent until proved guilty, she said. Neither worker yet has been indicted, though Hocutt said he expects to take the case to a grand jury in the next two weeks.

McBride granted most of the prosecutors' requests. He ordered the workers to gain no access to SHINES or any other DFCS database, to stay out of the Muscogee DFCS office, to have no contact with workers in the Muscogee office and no access to that office's records. He also ordered DFCS to preserve any evidence related to the case.

He was ordering the defendants to have no contact with anyone who previously worked in the Muscogee DFCS office when Jackson objected that Cobb's current church pastor used to work in there, so that would mean she couldn't go to church.

Adams said a former Muscogee DFCS worker is now assigned to the Chattahoochee County office, so Mitchell could not go to work were she ordered to stay away from that employee.

McBride amended the order to say each defendant was not to discuss the case with any coworker and to have no contact with witnesses in the case.

Adams said no list of witnesses yet exists. Hocutt said one will be provided.

"It's a long list, I can tell you that," he added.

Another hearing in the case has been set for Dec. 19.

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