published Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Details revealed in foster care death of Catoosa County two-year-old

ORA Weatherspoon Case Summary
ORA Weatherspoon Case Summary

A state case summary on a Catoosa County, Ga., girl who died New Year's Day from injuries she received while in foster care paints a black-and-blue picture of bruises, emotional trauma and nightmares over the last months of her life and discrepancies in accounts of how her injuries occurred.

Two-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon died from injuries she suffered on Dec. 29, 2013, from what a foster parent described as a fall down stairs at their Ringgold, Ga., home, according to documents the Times Free Press obtained from the Georgia Department of Family Children Services.

An autopsy showed evidence of bruising on Saharah's back, arms, face and torso, and she had "retinal hemorrhages and both new and old brain bleeding," heavily redacted case documents show.

The 12-page case summary, from which all proper names and potentially identifying pronouns were redacted, also reveals that:

• Saharah and her brother had been removed from the care of the same foster parents for trial placement with their mother, but were placed with them again even though one child "screamed and cried and begged not to be placed back in this home."

• There were allegations of neglect, abuse and maltreatment while the children were in the care of these foster parents. Photographs of injuries were submitted to DFCS officials on at least one occasion by day care workers.

• DFCS officials in Fannin County planned to move the children from the foster home in October but left them there after speaking with the case manager familiar with the situation.

• Seven hours elapsed between the time Saharah received her fatal injuries and when the foster parents sought medical treatment.

No charges have been filed in Saharah's death, and an investigation by Catoosa County authorities and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is ongoing.

The case summary contains information starting in February 2013 about Saharah and her older brother. Despite the redactions, it's clear the siblings already had been through a lot when they were taken from their mother, Fannin County, Ga., resident Jennifer Palmer.

  • photo
    Saharah Weatherspoon is the little girl who died of injuries received while in foster care in Ringgold, Ga.

Saharah and her 7-year-old brother were taken from Palmer on Feb. 5, 2013, after the children's father stabbed Palmer in the neck multiple times in front of them at their home in McCaysville, then fled with the children and later holed up in a camper trailer. The man then turned on propane gas inside the camper and started a fire in an effort to kill himself and the children, according to documents and authorities who investigated.

Documents also describe the extreme conditions Saharah and her brother lived in before they were placed in state custody, including living in a home with no running water or heat and where the children often went without food.

The siblings' first foster family kept the children until March of last year, when they asked that the children be moved because of "constant crying and ... fighting during bath time."

There were suspicions that one of the children might have been injured during bath time but that was never confirmed.

The case manager at the time soon left the agency and "did not sufficiently document these concerns," the summary states.

After the first foster family asked that the children be relocated, they were placed with an Omni Visions Inc. Therapeutic Foster Home. These foster parents were new, approved on March 4, 2013, and Saharah and her brother were their first placement two days later.

They remained in that home until the first week of June 2013, when officials allowed a "trial home placement" with their mother while they remained in the legal custody of the state, the summary states.

But on Sept. 11, 2013, DFCS learned of a drug arrest that happened in the children's presence, and they were placed back in the Omni Visions foster home.

"It is documented that [one of the children] screamed and cried and begged not to be placed back in this home and states the [one of the caregivers] was 'mean,'" the summary states.

Since the child wouldn't elaborate and "made no outcry of abuse" the brother and sister were placed in that same foster home "due to their familiarity ... thinking it would be less traumatic for them since they already knew" the caregivers, documents state.

A report was made to Omni Visions about concerns and complaints by the children's caregivers of the children being slow when bathing, dressing and eating, and noted that the caregiver "had to drag [him or her] to the bathroom during the night to keep [the child] from wetting the bed."

The foster parents "wanted a higher per diem [compensation for housing the children] citing these concerns as the need for a higher per diem," documents state.

Another portion of the summary documents reports of injuries starting in May of last year with a bruised cheek "that looked awful" that the foster parents said happened in a fall from a chair, and accounts of scratches on one of the children that the case manager eventually decided were accidental.

After their return to foster care in September, an unnamed person reported a "change of heart" in the children and that the person had "a gut feeling that something is not right."

The same person was surprised the foster parents accepted the children back a second time, the summary states.

While officials were investigating those concerns, an anonymous report was made about the foster parents yelling at one or both of the children, triggering a safety plan formulated by Omni Visions to help with parenting the children.

Again, the children were left where they were.

Between October and December 2013, officials investigated reports the children were left outside without supervision and that one of the foster parents was overheard telling one child to take a bath accompanied by a threat that "if I give you a bath, it's going to hurt."

But when the child -- it is not clear which child because of redaction -- was interviewed about the report, there "was no outcry of abuse," and the new day care where the children were enrolled "had no concerns," the summary states.

The foster parents denied the allegations and, since officials couldn't substantiate the reports, the investigation was closed.

The summary gives an account from the foster parent of what happened Dec. 29, the day Saharah fell.

An unnamed person or child said that Saharah "fell down the stairs earlier in the day at approximately 2:30 p.m. while attempting to retrieve a ball," the summary states. She "cried a little but appeared fine and ... continued to play and crawled back up the stairs to retrieve the ball after [redacted] threw the ball up the stairs."

But later in the evening Saharah "would not wake up" and didn't wake on another attempt to rouse her again. She was "slumped over" and "snoring" and was assumed asleep.

One of the foster parents "attempted to revive [name redacted] by placing (her) hands in cold water and then taking (her) outside in the cold air," the summary states.

After placing the children in a car, the foster care parent with the children called the other foster care parent who was working and told them to come home, the summary states.

The foster care parent and the children "drove around for a little while and then drove back home to meet (the other foster parent) ..."

"When asked why [redacted] had not called 911, [redacted] stated [they] panicked," the summary states.

Saharah died two days later.

DFCS officials in Fannin County wished they had moved the children as they had intended, according to the summary.

"[W]hen they originally staffed this case on [Oct. 16 and 17, 2013], they were planning to remove the children from the [redacted]. After speaking with the Omni Visions [case manager] and discussing the services that were being put in place, the decision was made to leave the children" where they were, the summary states.

"Fannin County advised they wish they had moved the children at the time they staffed the case and felt they were influenced by the private agency case manager as she had ongoing contact with the children ..." the summary states.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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