By Lindsay Field Penticuff
“They took me out of this hole that I was living in and brought me into something beautiful, which has been the most amazing thing I could ever experience.”
These are the words of Sarah Schiltz, a now 16-year-old girl who was rescued from an unthinkable circumstance at just 5 years old thanks to the steadfast work of the Cobb County Police Department, Cobb County Division of Children and Family Services, and SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center.
In August 2010, former Cobb County Police Crimes Against Children Unit Det. Monika Franklin got a call from officers who had responded to a dispute between two brothers. “When they got there, they noticed the condition of the home and the children, and that’s when they called Crimes Against Children and we responded to the house,” Det. Franklin recalls. “In my 18 years on the job, it was in the top five worst things I’ve ever seen.”
Sarah, and her little sister, Hannah who was 4 at the time (now 15), were in horrible condition. Det. Franklin says Sarah weighed about 160 pounds and Hannah nearly 100 pounds. There were also roaches everywhere. The girls were taken into protective custody and underwent forensic interviews with detectives. “They didn’t seem to understand that what they were living in wasn’t what normal kids lived in,” shares Det. Franklin.
Sarah and Hannah were then placed into foster care with Jennifer and Craig Schiltz, who were living in Acworth at the time. They have been foster parents for nearly 20 years and have cared for approximately 300 children. “I went to DFCS [The Georgia Division of Family & Children Services] to pick up these poor, pitiful girls,” Jennifer says. “There was a bug actually crawling down one of their faces. It was just awful. The neglect was just horrific and they didn’t know anything.”
Schiltz says Hannah was still in diapers and neither of them knew what numbers or colors were. “They were just in a terrible, terrible spot in every which way you could imagine,” she recalls. “The lice was so bad in their hair and it looked like their hair had never been combed, so their hair was like rocks. We ended up having to shave all of their hair off.”
Schiltz, who also worked for DFCS for many years before becoming a foster parent, says she had never seen a case like this in her professional life.
SafePath to the rescue
When children are discovered neglected or abused, the team at SafePath in Marietta has a unique ability to help through their multidisciplinary team members by providing clothes, medical care, forensic assistance, mental health, and advocacy services to any child who comes through the center.
“When Sarah and Hannah were brought to SafePath by law enforcement and DFCS, our staff was able to provide a safe, child-friendly environment where the young girls could be cleaned, clothed, and fed in order to simply feel safe as they began their journey through the system,” says Jinger Robins, CEO, SafePath. “Without the baseline of basic safety, personal needs, and an environment that allows a child to feel safe, the journey of healing simply can’t begin. We were able to assist in their healing journey.”
Schiltz says the support SafePath provided Sarah and Hannah was amazing. “In addition to the counseling and forensic interviews, a team of professionals helped guide us on how to take care of the girls,” she says. “Someone would actually come with us to the store and help teach the girls how to behave in public. They would also go to the park with us and help teach the girls how to introduce themselves to play with other kids.”
More than a decade later, that early intervention, along with the wonderful care provided by Schiltz’s family, has allowed the girls to be in a place where they are doing great. “They are doing incredibly well,” Schiltz shares. “They are both on the A Honor Roll, and they are both so funny, especially Sarah. They have just both been such huge blessings in our lives, and they are super-sweet girls and kind!”
Three years after Sarah and Hannah came to their home for foster care, Jennifer and Craig adopted the girls. Sarah doesn’t quite remember the specific support and resources afforded her by SafePath as a child, nor does she really remember the trauma she experienced as a child. But she wants other children in foster care to know that there’s still hope. “To the people who have really helped me out, a big thank you to y’all. My mom and dad have been really big troopers with a lot of this, even though it’s really hard, and I congratulate them for that,” says Sarah.
Coming full circle
Not every child Jennifer and Craig Schiltz have fostered over the past two decades required support from SafePath, but those they took into their home got to see firsthand the benefits of the resources from other foster children. This was eye-opening for Miaja Jefferson.
Ever since Jefferson was about 3 years old, she had been in and out of the foster care system in California, often being homeless, and searching for a place for her and her little brother to stay before and after school. “My mom was in and out of our lives, so I knew my grandmother for taking care of us,” Jefferson says. “But she started getting dementia when I turned about 9 years old and she was placed in a nursing home.”
Jefferson’s mother moved away to Georgia when she was 12 years old, leaving her and her little brother to fend for themselves, and with only a food stamp card to their names. They would stay with friends, or her little brother would sneak into the nursing home to stay with their grandmother at night.
During the second semester of Jefferson’s ninth-grade year, she called her mom to say they really needed help. She and her brother were moved to Georgia and lived off Six Flags Drive in South Cobb. “We were abused by the kids in the home where we lived, and we ended up still being homeless here, because my mom left us again,” says Jefferson.
At 16 years old, Jefferson got pregnant, and she was scared. Her mom wasn’t around to help her and within a week of her daughter being born, DFCS was knocking on doors trying to find them. “I had a one-week-old baby and didn’t know what to do,” she remembers. “I was a really good student in school, too, but I was going to drop out. I didn’t think I could do it anymore.”
The Georgia Division of Family & Children Services stepped in to help Jefferson, and both she, and her now 10-year-old daughter, Amiyah, were placed in foster care with the Schiltz family. “Jennifer took Amiyah out of my arms and told me that I didn’t have to worry about anything ever again,” Jefferson says. “From that point forward, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I was able to be a kid again.”
And during the few years while Jefferson was staying with the Schiltz family, she was a foster sibling to Sarah and Hannah. “To look back on what all SafePath was able to do for Sarah and Hannah after all they had been through was incredible,” she says. “And they are the main reason I want to work in Crimes Against Children.”
Jefferson studied criminal justice and information technology at Kennesaw State University, and she began her training with the Cobb County Police Department’s police academy in May 2021. Today, she’s in the field training observation stage of her training. “When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to do something to help other people,” she says. “The Cobb community is what helped put me where I am today, and if I’m not helping somebody, I just don’t feel right doing it. That’s my passion.”
Jefferson hopes her experience, while devastating, will help her to make a difference in the lives of children who have had similar experiences. “I am going to take everything I learned from the streets, from college, from school, and from my foster parents, and I want to raise my daughter to be what I had wished for growing up. I want to be the mom I never had,” she concludes. “It’s kind of a blessing when I look back; you’re dealt a deck of cards when you’re born, and you take that and make the best of it.”
Stats and Facts: Child Abuse and Neglect in Georgia
- Every 10 seconds, a report of child abuse is made.
- More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
- Every year, more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made involving more than 6 million children.
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.
- Approximately 80-90% of trafficked youth have been sexually abused before they are trafficked.
- Approximately 70% of children who die from abuse are under 4 years old.
- Neglect is the most prevalent form of abuse.
- Child abuse occurs across all socioeconomic levels, across all ethnic and cultural lines, within all religious lines, and at all levels of education.
- Cost of child maltreatment: Georgia accounts for about $18 billion of the national estimate.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month
Since 1983, April has been recognized as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“The need grew out of the pandemic levels of child abuse, which often were invisible and not reported,” says Jinger Robins, CEO, SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center. “April is the month when focus and attention are placed on the need for prevention and how we all can join in the effort to ensure protection for children as they grow.”
The long-term effects of child abuse can last for years and impact a child’s ability to develop to their fullest potential. “Children are our future and need to be protected so they can grow into healthy adults,” Robins adds. “We all need to join together in bringing attention to April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month and take the steps to make a difference in lives of our children.”
19th Annual Hearing Children’s Voices Gala
Theme: A Night of Bond—007 Style (Come dressed as your favorite “Bond” character.)
When: Saturday, May 14, 6 p.m.
Where: Cobb Galleria
Presenting Sponsor, $25,000
Diamond Sponsor, $15,000
Platinum Sponsor, $10,000
Gold Sponsor, $5,000
Silver Sponsor, $2,500
Table Host, $1,500