A mother’s temporary distraction has led to her being placed on the state's child abuse registry.
As a result, she’s chosen to leave Georgia. Last February, Jennifer Cotton was dining at a local restaurant when her 2-year-old son reached into her purse, pulled out her handgun and accidentally discharged the firearm.
A screw from the gun’s holster hit the boy’s 11-year-old sister and injured her leg.
Cotton was later found guilty of misdemeanor reckless conduct. As part of her plea, she was ordered to take a gun safety course and conduct “write-in” probation from her new home in Texas.
Cotton’s attorney, Jason W. Swindle, said law enforcement and the Coweta County Solicitor's Office were gracious and professional during negotiations. With a clean record, Cotton was granted first-offender status.
"We were very pleased with the result in Coweta State Court,” he said. "Unfortunately, she was added to the child abuse registry."
In 2015, Governor Nathan Deal signed the Child Welfare Reform Bill (SB 138) into law. The law re-established the Child Abuse Registry, designed to handle cases with enough evidence to suggest that abuse may have occurred.
Swindle said the incident was investigated months earlier by a representative from the Department of Family and Children's Services. Soon, Cotton discovered she was being added to the state’s child abuse registry.
The news was devastating and was a catalyst in her decision to leave the state with her family, according to Swindle.
“To be labeled as a child abuser was heartbreaking, especially for a stay-at-home mother who is dedicated to raising her children,” Swindle said.
Once a person is added to the registry, they are notified of the substantiation in writing. Instructions on how to appeal the inclusion of their name on the registry are included in that notification as well as the paperwork needed to file the appeal.
Persons remain on the registry indefinitely unless they successfully complete an appeal. Cotton lost her appeal.
The news was not only disheartening to Cotton, but for Swindle as well. As a firm supporter of the registry, Swindle believes the legislation is rooted in good intentions, but says there are unintended consequences that sometimes cannot be foreseen.
"It protects my children and children across the state,” he said. “But here, the problem starts by the initial process."
During their investigation, a DFCS caseworker made a decision that probable cause existed that a "substantiated case" of "neglect” occurred with Cotton. After reporting this to the registry, Cotton was automatically placed on the registry.
The word "neglect" is not defined in the statute, Swindle said.
"So, the common scenarios we think of, such as ongoing neglect and lack of supervision based on habitual drug use, allowing children to roam the streets or keeping a filthy home are covered,” he said.
"But, an otherwise model example of a mother can also be placed on the registry as well by a split-second distraction such as what happened here; even if she has never shown anything resembling neglect in her life.
"Hopefully, some tweaks can be made in 2018 to prevent people like Jennifer Cotton from being placed on a registry with child molesters and people who beat children," Swindle said.
Clay Neely: firstname.lastname@example.org, @clayneely