Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 20, 2013
The searchers found Jonathan Sturdy at 9 o’clock on a cold Saturday night. The 2-year-old’s body, face down in a drainage canal, seemed to bring his disappearance earlier that day to a simple, if tragic, resolution. Except for this: Jonathan hadn’t drowned. He was dead when he entered the water.
Questions abounded: Was Jonathan murdered? Was his mother, repeatedly accused of neglect, responsible? And, most troubling, how could so many people have known about Jonathan’s dangerous life, yet failed to help?
Jonathan Thomas Sturdy’s death, on Jan. 14, 2012, would have been sad enough under any circumstances. But what happened before he died and what has happened since tell a larger, grimmer story about the failings of Georgia’s child welfare system.
In a state with one of the highest rates of children’s deaths by abuse and neglect, those failings are epic, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
Dozens of Georgia children die from maltreatment each year despite intervention by the state’s child protection agency. In 2012 alone, the Journal-Constitution found, workers from the Division of Family and Children’s Services, or DFCS, did not detect or did not act on signs that foretold the deaths of at least 25 children.
But DFCS is only one element of a fundamental breakdown in how Georgia protects its children.
An ever-expanding wall of secrecy surrounds DFCS cases, blocking attempts to hold the agency accountable and hampering communication and collaboration with other agencies. Neither social workers nor police officers, neither medical examiners nor inquisitive neighbors can easily see all the threats to a child’s safety. Before Jonathan Sturdy died, DFCS didn’t know what the police knew, the police hadn’t heard about what neighbors saw, and none of them had any notion of the concerns reported to social workers at a nearby military base.
Hiding details of abuse and neglect may save a child’s privacy, as DFCS contends, but not necessarily his or her life.
Few states present more dangers for children than Georgia. It is among the leaders in firearms deaths, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and several potentially fatal diseases, in addition to maltreatment deaths. Twice in the past quarter-century, state lawmakers adopted sweeping reforms that allowed for outside reviews of how DFCS handled children’s deaths. But as public interest ebbed, so did the impact of those reforms.
The dangers are exacerbated, the Journal-Constitution found, by investigations of children’s deaths that can be alarmingly inadequate.
The newspaper examined 2,230 deaths of children, 1 week old to age 17, reported statewide between January 2011 and July 2013. Among them, 135 were homicides and 71 suicides. Authorities said 462 children died by accident.
But the newspaper’s review suggests that as many as one in four accidental deaths actually were caused at least in part by adults’ negligent or reckless conduct. Sometimes their conduct might be considered criminal.
Of the 123 children who died from adult negligence, almost 40 were unintentionally suffocated while sleeping with parents. Even when the adults had been drinking or taking drugs, few faced the criminal charges that most likely would have been filed if they killed the child while driving impaired.
Ten of those 123 deaths occurred in fires after parents left children home alone. Eleven resulted from what was termed accidental drug or alcohol ingestion — a finding that often seems incongruous to the ages of the victims. For instance, Autumn Faith Mills of Columbia County, whose death was attributed to a methadone overdose, was 33 days old.
More often than not, officials cannot say with certainty why children died.
State law requires autopsies in unexpected or unexplained deaths of children age 7 or younger, as well as in suspicious or unusual deaths of children and teenagers. The law also mandates the procedure for all victims of violent crimes and suicides.
Since 2011, however, no autopsy was performed in 53 percent of all children’s deaths, regardless of age. During that time, state records show, authorities designated 16 children’s deaths as suicides and two as homicides without collecting evidence through an autopsy.
Investigators could not determine the manner in which more than 300 children died: from natural causes, accidents, homicides or suicides.
Even what at first appear to be definitive findings sometimes are murky. At least 40 times since 2011, coroners or medical examiners said they could not explain a child’s death — while, inexplicably, attributing it to natural causes.
Such ambiguous conclusions complicate efforts by police to file criminal charges.
They also raise an unsettling question: How easily can adults in Georgia get away with killing a child?
‘Many red flags’
Jonathan Sturdy was barely more than an infant when his family moved from Nevada to Georgia. The Army had assigned his father to Fort Stewart, and the family rented a ranch-style house in nearby Walthourville, about 50 miles southwest of Savannah. Jonathan had wispy blond hair and bright blue eyes and, in family photos, always a smile. As a toddler, he attracted a lot of attention from neighbors.
What they often noticed, though, was Jonathan and his half-brother, who was three years older, playing at the edge of the road or standing alone outside a nearby convenience store. One woman later said she frequently took the children into her home and fed them breakfast while waiting for their mother to get out of bed.
Once, a Walthourville police officer brought Jonathan home after finding the boy, wearing just a diaper, wandering through an empty field. Jonathan’s mother said she was showering and didn’t know he had gone out.
DFCS opened an investigation after Jonathan’s mother left him and his half-brother in her car outside a grocery. The engine was running, the air conditioning on, the doors locked. The mother, police said, was nowhere to be found.
Everyone, it seemed, knew about the dysfunction in Jonathan’s family. And yet, no one stepped in.
Most neighbors said nothing about the lack of adult supervision until after Jonathan’s death. The police officer told Jonathan’s mother to buy better door locks to keep the boy inside, but he didn’t notify DFCS. The officer later said he thought the problem was “rectified.”
The episode outside the grocery brought two DFCS caseworkers to Jonathan’s house in July 2011. They met with Jonathan’s parents, Thomas Sturdy and Kayla Aubart, and “discussed safety, ” a DFCS report says. Then the agency placed the case in a status known as “diversion, ” in which caseworkers could refer the parents to counseling or other services without opening a full investigation. But the workers would not return to check on the children. Nor would they track whether the family availed itself of the offered services.
“The case was closed, ” Kayla Aubart, 29, said in a recent interview. “That was the end of it.”
The depth of DFCS’ investigation is not clear. An agency report says caseworkers consulted with military officials and the children’s pediatrician, who raised no concerns about the family. But the report, compiled after Jonathan’s death, also refers to “many red flags” suggesting trouble in the family. Among them, the report says, was Aubart’s acknowledged use of narcotic painkillers.
Aubart began complaining about chronic pain after she gave birth to Jonathan in April 2009. When Jonathan was 4 months old, Aubart wrote on Twitter: “Back hurts really bad. Can’t take it anymore.” A day later: “Feeding new baby. Back still hurts.”
The pain later led Aubart to a pain-management doctor in Savannah. He prescribed Vicodin, which often causes drowsiness and can be habit-forming. On Jan. 12, 2012, Aubart sought a prescription from another provider: a physician’s assistant at Fort Stewart’s clinic for military families.
Aubart showed up wearing what appeared to be bedclothes and with both children in tow, said Detective Tracy Jennings of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke with the physician’s assistant. Aubart said one of the children had accidentally flushed her Vicodin tablets down the toilet, and she needed more. The physician’s assistant was skeptical, Jennings said in an interview, and feared Aubart was in no condition to care for her children, or even drive them home safely. He referred her to a clinic that treats pain without narcotics. He also reported his concerns to Army social workers.
Military officials declined to discuss how the social workers handled the report. In a statement, the Army said it has a written agreement with DFCS to promptly share reports about suspected abuse or neglect of children in military families.
In Jonathan’s case, the Army social workers never sent the report, DFCS said. Within 48 hours, it would be too late to matter.
‘A blink of the eye’
Saturday, Jan. 14, began with an argument.
It was Thomas Sturdy’s turn to watch the children, but he wanted to spend the day at a friend’s, watching football. Aubart, who stayed home with the children all week while Sturdy worked, was angry. Sturdy left about 10 a.m., he later told police, even though only two games aired that day, and the first did not begin until more than six hours later.
Aubart said she spent the day at home with Jonathan and Brent, her 5-year-old from a relationship before her marriage to Sturdy. About 3 o’clock, she said, they all took naps. When Aubart awoke about 5, she said, Brent and a neighbor kid were in the living room, playing the video game Mortal Kombat.
Jonathan was gone.
His absence was not entirely unusual. Relatives described him as a wanderer, a fearless explorer despite his age.
“A blink of the eye and he’d be out the door, running down somewhere checking something out, him and his dog, ” Jonathan’s father later told a Savannah television station, WSAV.
Aubart said she immediately called her husband, who got a friend to help him look for Jonathan.
The temperature that afternoon had barely broken 50 degrees. The sun would set at 5:43 p.m. At 5:37, her husband’s search unsuccessful, Aubart called 911.
Police officers, firefighters and volunteers spread out through the neighborhood, within walking distance of the Walthourville police station. As night fell, the temperature dropped into the mid-30s. Jonathan had neither a coat nor his usual companion, a Labrador-bulldog mix named Chewy, to keep him warm.
A firefighter with a search dog followed a trail out of the family’s yard, across railroad tracks and a road, to a drainage canal nearly a quarter-mile away. His flashlight illuminated Jonathan’s body, face down in 4 feet of murky green water.
A state medical examiner performed an autopsy the next day in Savannah. Identifying no traumatic injuries, the procedure could not pinpoint why Jonathan died. But the medical examiner found no water in Jonathan’s lungs.
He hadn’t drowned.
The police opened a homicide investigation, and detectives called in both parents for lie-detector tests. They told Aubart she failed.
Later, she strongly denied any involvement in Jonathan’s death. But she related the detectives’ interpretation of the results with a strong dose of sarcasm: “I failed miserably. I should be ashamed. I killed my son.”
Children die in horrific ways.
Marnee Kay Downey overdosed on a pain medication intended for cancer patients. Her parents allegedly used it to get the 8-month-old to sleep. They face murder charges in Haralson County.
Alexis Long arrived at a hospital in Columbus with wounds on her face, forehead, back and legs. Some were new, others partly healed. Her hair was thin, as if someone had yanked it out. Her adoptive mother was charged with murder, accused of slamming the 20-month-old down so hard it broke a changing table and flung the girl to the floor.
Five-month-old Nicholas Womack Jr. died in his crib, covered by bites from cockroaches and rodents. A DFCS report described the family’s home, in Richmond County, as “deplorable.” The caseworker catalogued soiled diapers and spoiled food, dirty dishes in the bathtub and a kitchen sink clogged by grease and cockroaches, beds with no sheets and a broken window. “ETC., ” the caseworker added. The baby’s parents face child cruelty charges.
Like Jonathan, these children were among the 152 who died in 2012 even though DFCS had investigated maltreatment allegations involving their families in the previous five years.
The Journal-Constitution reviewed summaries that DFCS provided for 86 of the 152 deaths. The agency heavily edited the documents, removing names of deceased children and their families and many other details, such as the identities of police departments investigating the deaths. DFCS lawyers based the redactions on a 2009 state law that, in effect, repealed an earlier measure allowing public inspection of most files on children who died following the agency’s intervention.
Still, the summaries, in conjunction with other public records, such as police files, autopsy reports and a state database of death certificates, show that DFCS workers, police officers and others missed repeated chances to prevent many deaths.
In the weeks before Alexis Long died, for example, her adoptive mother posted complaints on Facebook about the girl’s tantrums. She also shared pictures that inadvertently showed many of Alexis’ earlier injuries.
The DFCS case summary says, “No one who responded to the photos and comments on Facebook questioned the (wounds) on the child.”
The summary didn’t say so, but the DFCS workers who repeatedly visited the home to oversee the adoption didn’t question the wounds, either.
Instead, “no agency workers … noted problems, ” DFCS reported after Alexis died. A home study “revealed no red flags for the family.”
DFCS officials would not comment on specific cases. Sharon Hill, the agency’s state director, said caseworkers and supervisors have improved their practices in dealing with sometimes-difficult families during difficult times.
The agency no longer places cases in diversion, Hill said in an interview, but instead uses a more rigorous screening process when it receives maltreatment reports. If caseworkers think a child is in danger, DFCS opens a full investigation, she said; when a child seems safe, workers offer “family support, ” such as counseling.
The agency has “certainly a deeper focus” on assessing risks, Hill said.
“We have been able to look at some of the dynamics in a family that makes a child unsafe, ” she said. “When it stands alone, it may appear to be benign, ” but when circumstances form a pattern of maltreatment, “it’s a lot more serious than you would think.”
Often, though, answers elude DFCS workers and other investigators.
Ten days before Jonathan Sturdy died, 4-year-old Alexis Redmond of Winder drowned in the bathtub. Her mother, Darlene Redmond, told the police that she left Alexis, who was autistic, alone for a few seconds. When she returned, Redmond said, Alexis was face down in 5 inches of water, not breathing.
The police doubted her story from the start.
In reports and interviews, detectives said Darlene Redmond eventually gave differing accounts of how long she left Alexis unsupervised. A friend had stopped by, and Redmond spent somewhere between several seconds and several minutes with him before she returned to Alexis.
Redmond told police the friend placed Alexis on a sofa to perform CPR, pushing about two cups of water out of her lungs. But when officers checked a few minutes later, according to a police report, “no water spots were found.”
Redmond denied to police detectives that she caused her daughter’s death. She did not respond to recent requests for an interview. One recent afternoon, a woman at the house where Alexis died, who identified herself as Redmond’s niece, said the girl fell asleep and drowned “in a second” because a new medicine made her drowsy. However, toxicology tests showed Alexis had no drugs in her system when she died.
The initial police reports said officers intended to charge Redmond at least with reckless conduct and possibly with more serious offenses. But they closed the case when a state medical examiner ruled Alexis’ death was an accidental drowning “due to autism.”
The autopsy report does not mention the questions surrounding Alexis’ death or her family’s history with DFCS — five investigations of neglect since 2007.
Such information should increase “the index of suspicion” about children’s deaths, said Dr. Gregory Davis, Kentucky’s assistant state medical examiner and a pathology professor at the University of Kentucky.
“Medical examiners need to know what was happening in a decedent’s life, ” said Davis, who spoke on behalf of the National Association of Medical Examiners. “Then they have to try to determine whether it affected the death. “Context is everything, ” he said.
Medical examiners often fall back on vague findings, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, giving a false impression of certainty, he said. Georgia has a higher rate of sudden infant death than all but four other states.
“That really is a fancy diagnosis for, ‘We don’t know why this child died, ‘ ” Davis said. “The intellectually honest answer is to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Public pressure for an exhaustive investigation into a child’s death is rare. Many children quickly pass from memory.
Alexis Redmond is buried in a small cemetery in Barrow County, across a fence from a noisy building-materials distribution facility. Her grave, covered with gray pebbles, has no stone monument almost two years after her death. It is marked only by a small metal placard left behind by the funeral home.
Jonathan Sturdy was memorialized in a 68-word online obituary, its terseness pointedly emphasizing his abbreviated life.
A stalled case
Kayla Aubart believes Jonathan’s killer is on the loose. But she knows she is the leading suspect. She knows she is the only suspect.
“They think I did it so they’re not going to look at anybody else, ” she said. Police and social workers, she said, are “railroading me at every … turn.”
Detectives still have the clothes Aubart wore when Jonathan’s body was found. If she had killed her son, she said, those clothes would have been torn by briars and caked with mud from walking to the canal.
“How dumb are these people, really?” she said. “Did I put my hands on his neck? No. Kids sneak out. It’s the Terrible Twos. They wander. This wasn’t the first time.”
Aubart suspects a young neighbor she describes as “weird.” Police say the boy was not involved.
“He’s been interviewed and blah-de-blah-blah, ” Aubart said. “I feel he knew us and he watched us.”
Aubart’s mother, Cindy, deals blackjack at a Nevada casino. She said a customer who is psychic told her Jonathan died at the hands of a young boy. But she said authorities refuse to consider that anyone other than Kayla could have killed Jonathan, carried his body almost a quarter-mile and tossed it into the drainage canal.
“She’s lazy, ” Cindy Aubart said. “That is three football fields away. Like I told the detective: If there was a hundred dollar bill on the other end, she’d think about it.”
She added: “Kayla might not have been the perfect mother, but she would never have hurt those boys.”
Jonathan’s death brought DFCS back to his family’s home. This time, caseworkers took custody of his half-brother, Brent, and placed him in foster care. Later, the state sent the boy to live with an aunt in Wisconsin.
Kayla Aubart wants custody of Brent, and she said she did everything DFCS and the police asked of her after Jonathan died. She took drug tests and attended parenting classes. She looked for work and moved into a rundown trailer so she would be near Brent’s foster home. And she said she saw a “so-called psychologist” chosen by DFCS, but he accused her of lying about what happened to Jonathan.
“As long as they think I killed Jonathan, they’re not going to give me Brent back, ” she said. “They’re all a bunch of damn liars.”
Almost two years after Jonathan’s death, authorities cannot make a case against Aubart, or anyone else. Jennings, the sheriff’s detective, does not directly implicate Aubart. But she said: “Had he been supervised sufficiently, it wouldn’t have happened.”
With the investigation stalled, Aubart moved on with her life.
She divorced Jonathan’s father shortly after he left the Army last year. She lived briefly in South Florida. Then she joined her parents in Laughlin, Nev., a small desert town 100 miles south of Las Vegas.
Aubart has faced minor criminal charges three times since Jonathan died, once in Florida and twice in Nevada. Her most recent arrest in Las Vegas followed a fight with her new husband.
Aubart spent the night in jail. It was early September, a month after she gave birth again, to another baby boy.