The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE.org) has confirmed from a confidential source that the girl charged in the death of a toddler left in her care is actually 10-years-old not 11, as has been extensively reported.
The age of the girl facing felony murder and child cruelty charges in the death of two-year-old Zyda White is just one of many new details JJIE.org has learned about the babysitter, whose name has not been released. Sandy Springs Police spokesman Lt. Steve Rose has confirmed more details about what allegedly happened on September 18. Police said the mothers of both girls were co-workers at a Chili’s Restaurant near Perimeter Mall. They worked the evening shift at the restaurant on the night of the incident, according to Rose. Ashlea Collier says she dropped little Zyda off at Kiyosha Bell’s apartment before Collier’s shift began. Bell later went to work at the restaurant leaving both children alone, according to Rose.
Collier said she returned to pick up her daughter later that night only to find her unconscious and home alone with Bell’s 10-year-old daughter. Police said Collier called 911 at 11:39 p.m. The toddler was transported to a hospital, where she was reportedly pronounced dead shortly after midnight. It is unclear how long the children had been left unsupervised.
Police said the babysitter claimed that the toddler had fallen out of bed, but an autopsy later determined that Zyda suffered a head injury and blunt force trauma to her torso and buttocks. She is charged as a juvenile in the case and is being held in the Metro Atlanta Regional Youth Detention Center in Fulton County.
The case has nabbed national headlines and has drawn a chorus from critics debating about whether 11 is too young for a child to babysit alone. The fact that the girl is actually 10 will likely become fodder for future discussions.
“There are some children who might be mature enough to handle babysitting at that age, but there’s some pretty good evidence out there that a 10 or 11-year-old does not have the cognitive ability to be left alone with a child,” said Kirsten Widner, of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “To make any determinations about this case, you’d have to know more about the child and the specifics of the situation. For example, how long were they alone? Was someone checking on them? Was there a neighbor next door and the child could run over at any time? Was there a safety plan that the (older) child was aware of? All of these factors make a difference.”
According the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) the state does not have regulations or laws that determine when a child is considered old enough to be left home alone or to care for other children, but the child welfare agency has published guidelines on its Website for parents. The guidelines state that children between the ages of 9 and 12, can be left home alone “for brief periods of time” based on their maturity level. It is recommended that babysitters be at least 13 years of age and that even at that age should not be left with infants, small children or children that require special medical attention.
“It’s very hard to say if [a parent or guardian] did not abide by these guidelines whether A to Z would happen (to them),” said DFACS spokeswoman Dena Smith. “This (list) is just a resource to help parents make the determination of whether to leave their children home alone or not. Anything that is not a law is just a resource for parents.”
Many observers have also raised questions about whether the adults involved in this case should be charged – along with or in lieu of the child. Attorney Darice Good, a certified National Child Welfare Legal Specialist, said depending on the specifics of the case both mothers certainly could potentially face criminal charges.
“It’s all going to boil down to what was the arrangement that was agreed upon when the toddler was left at the home,” said Good of the Atlanta-based Good & Lee firm. “It matters whether [Collier] knew that the other mother would be leaving at any point. As for [Bell] the police or district attorney could be looking into charging her with cruelty to children or as an accessory to a crime for leaving them alone. Certainly that potential is there.”
Widner said she believes that the case should be handled in juvenile court.
“That’s where this child belongs because [juvenile court] has the resources to handle this type of case and to deliver the court’s mission of rehabilitating youth,” she said. “If the police and prosecutors successfully build a case that the [10-year-old] harmed the child intentionally, the judge would have to create a [sentencing plan] that should include rehabilitation services that would help her understand that [abuse] is not the appropriate way to handle a child. That plan should also include counseling so that [the 10-year-old] can recover from the trauma of the situation. This will stay with her for the rest of her life.”
If found guilty, the 10-year-old could receive probation, community service and time in a juvenile detention center, Good said.
As for locking up one or both of the mothers, Widner does not agree.
“The question is, does justice require a prosecution in this case,” she said. “As a parent who lost a child, I think [Collier] has learned enough. Charging her would add an additional level of tragedy in this case. As for the [the 10-year-old], she will live with this for the rest of her life. And to lose her mother too? I don’t think that’s what we need to do here. She needs her parents love and support at this time. This is really a tragedy on both sides.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta