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June 15, 2004 - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Fired Official: Drugs Ditched To Help Teen

By Craig Schneider

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Before she was fired, the Clarke County child welfare director twice instructed workers to flush marijuana down a toilet to spare a teenager from criminal charges.

Gwen O'Looney, who was the Family and Children Services county director in Athens since 1998, said Monday she did not formally report the two incidents involving the 15-year-old girl to juvenile court, as required by state law.

The state child protection agency, which investigated the incidents, has referred the matter to Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Ken Mauldin. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

O'Looney said she did not formally report the teenager's possession of drugs because she believed the situation could be better handled within her agency, rather than the juvenile justice system.

"I believe our job is to focus on the needs of the child," O'Looney said Monday. She did not want the child to have a criminal record. "[The children] get a reputation for being a bad kid, and they live up to it," she said.

Investigations vs. Aid

O'Looney said she was fired May 18. The agency has declined to say why she was dismissed, but O'Looney believes the marijuana incidents played a role.

O'Looney also contends that her disagreements over what she says is a recent emphasis by the state agency on investigating families, instead of helping them, contributed to her firing.

O'Looney, who was mayor of Athens-Clarke County from 1990 to 1998, acknowledged she had befriended the foster teen before the drug incidents, taking her shopping and to cultural events. But she insisted she was not showing the girl special treatment by disposing of the drugs and not reporting her to law enforcement authorities.

An internal state investigation concluded O'Looney inappropriately handled the matter and that she may have violated state law. The investigation, by Kenneth Bramlett, director of the state Department of Human Resources Office of Investigative Services, noted a state law that says the agency must report knowledge of a child involved with drugs to juvenile court.

O'Looney, 56, said she did not know about the law. She said she had informal conversations about the matter with a juvenile justice representative, police and a DFCS superior --- all of whom, she said, agreed the drugs should just be thrown away. She said they also agreed the child should not be handed over to the police.

O'Looney declined to identify the officials she contacted.

Unreported Incidents

State records show the first incident occurred Oct. 30 last year, when the teenager's foster mother discovered the girl had about $200 worth of marijuana, which she was selling to raise money to buy a car.

The drugs were taken to the Clarke County DFCS office, where O'Looney instructed staff to flush the marijuana down a toilet, the investigative report said.

The second incident occurred Feb. 24 of this year, when seven small bags of marijuana were found in the girl's clothing drawers, the report said. Neither incident was reported.

A caseworker objected to the way O'Looney handled the second incident, and told the director that the drugs should not be flushed and the girl should be punished, the report said.

O'Looney said she moved the girl to another foster home and provided her counseling. She said she has done the same when other foster children have gotten in trouble.

"Everyone knows that I try to work with all these children to avoid prosecuting them or turning them over to the police," she said.

Robin Shearer, an associate juvenile court judge in Clarke County, said reporting to authorities a child possessing illegal drugs can benefit the child. "The point of the juvenile court is to try and treat, rehabilitate and supervise," she said.

If convicted of possession of marijuana, a teenager could be sentenced to probation at home with counseling, sent to a 90-day residential treatment facility or committed to juvenile detention, Shearer said.

Tom Morton, president of the Child Welfare Institute, a Duluth-based nonprofit that advises child protection agencies, said O'Looney and her staff should have reported the girl. "They not only didn't, they destroyed evidence that might have been used in an investigation," he said.

O'Looney said if presented with the same circumstances, she would think twice. But, she said, "My first instinct is to protect the child. I got into this agency to help people. I want to save them, not jail them."

She added, "I still think I did the right thing."

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