Abuse report was filed 6 months before 8-year-old victim's death
By Holly Edwards, Staff Writer
The Tennessean, June 3, 2004

Six months before an 8-year-old Georgia boy died of a blow to the head, he was the subject of a child-abuse report from a baby sitter at a Cool Springs [Tenn.] church.

However, the sitter with Remnant Fellowship Church provided too few details for child-welfare officials to investigate, said Carla Aaron, spokeswoman with the state Department of Children's Services.

Without names or a firsthand account of what happened, DCS officials were unable to investigate the complaint, Aaron said.

''When you piece everything together, it breaks your heart that a child eventually died of his injuries,'' she said. ''We just didn't have enough information to intervene.''

Aaron said DCS has reviewed its handling of the baby sitter's complaint and has determined that, with so little information, an investigation would have been impossible.

''We literally could not talk to every child involved in the church,'' she said. ''That would have been impossible, and it wouldn't have been legal.''

Josef Smith died in October 2003 after he suffered a blow to the head.

His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith of Mableton, Ga., are facing charges of felony murder, cruelty to a child and deprivation of a minor. They were members of the church.

Georgia detectives searched the church headquarters last month in connection with the boy's death. Franklin police launched a separate investigation into the church, though they have refused to say what they are investigating.

Aaron said she first learned that the baby sitter's report involved the Smith family a few weeks ago, soon after Franklin Police launched their investigation.

DCS realized that Josef was the subject of the baby sitter's report when Georgia investigators began sharing their information, including when the Smiths had visited the Cool Springs church, with caseworkers in Williamson County, she said. By comparing the information that Georgia police had about the Smiths with its files, DCS made the link.

In April 2003, Aaron said the baby sitter reported that a father had taken a boy, now known to be Josef, into a room at the church and beaten him. But, she said, the baby sitter did not witness the incident, did not see any marks on the boy afterward and did not know the names of either the father or son.

Aaron said she is not aware of any other reports of suspected child abuse in the church. Also, Franklin Police have shared information on what they are investigating with DCS officials, but have not asked the agency to take any specific actions, she said.

Cobb County, Ga., police detective David Schweizer has said that bruises covered much of Josef's body and he appeared to be a victim of chronic child abuse. Cobb County Police have said the Smiths beat the boy with a long stick of the hard glue used in hot-glue guns and sometimes locked him in a closet and made him pray to a picture of Jesus.

Schweizer has said that he believes Josef's death could be linked to the church.

The church has denied any wrongdoing and has supported the Smiths' contention that the boy's death was accidental. A spokesman for the church did not return phone calls seeking comment on the investigation.

The church and its affiliated weight-loss program, the Weigh Down Diet, were founded by Gwen Shamblin of Brentwood. The church and the weight-loss program are based at the Weigh Down Workshop headquarters in Cool Springs.

Cobb County detectives also are investigating the death of the Smiths' 17-month-old son, Milek, who died on July 25, 2003. The cause of his death was initially listed as pneumonia.

Several months before Milek died, the Cobb County office of the state Division of Family and Children Services received two requests by child-welfare workers in Henry County to visit the Smiths' home. The first report came from a young female relative who said Josef was claiming to be possessed by demons and threatening to kill people, and his parents were not seeking professional help.

Since the deaths of the boys, the Cobb County children services agency has made home visits mandatory when requested by another child-protection agency.

Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report. Holly Edwards can be reached at 259-8035

Return to this Newsroom date
Select other Newsroom date range
Return to Project NoSpank Table of Contents at www.nospank.net