published Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Grieving mother pushes for justice in Ringgold foster care death

Saharah Weatherspoon, 2, died of injuries received while in foster care in Ringgold, Ga.
Saharah Weatherspoon, 2, died of injuries received while in foster care in Ringgold, Ga.

Saharah Weatherspoon's big brother can't accept that she's gone.

When he's sad, the 7-year-old hugs the bear he was given at the hospital where his sister died on New Year's Day.

Their mother, Jennifer Palmer, says she believes her 2-year-old daughter died by violence.

The little boy and girl were in foster care at a home in Ringgold, Ga., until Dec. 29, 2013, when a serious head injury sent Saharah to the emergency room.

"He still doesn't understand the situation," Palmer said last week of her young son. "He thinks she's coming back."

The boy and his toddler sister were "very close," she said. "He feels like he needs to protect her."

Saharah Weatherspoon, initially reported by authorities as Sahara Palmer, was taken to the hospital three days before her death with what Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk initially called "life-threatening" injuries.

On Thursday, Catoosa County Sheriff's Office Capt. Christopher Lyons said investigators are awaiting autopsy results from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"We've been told it could be quite a while," Lyons said.

He said there is no way to say whether there was foul play until authorities have a cause of death from medical officials. Saharah's brother has been placed with another foster family.

"It's my understanding that they [the foster family that was caring for Saharah and her brother when she was injured] are not caring for any children," Lyons said.

Palmer said Thursday that her children had been placed in foster care after an incident in Fannin County involving their father almost a year ago.

On Feb. 5, 2013, the children's father, Ellis Weatherspoon, stabbed Palmer in the neck multiple times at their home in McCaysville, Ga., and fled with Saharah and her brother, according to Associated Press reports and the News Observer in Blue Ridge.

Ellis Weatherspoon, with the two children in tow, abandoned his vehicle and hitched a ride in an attempt to go to a friend's house but couldn't find it. So he got out of that car on the side of the road and hid out inside a parked camper off Highway 5.

Fannin County authorities said Weatherspoon entered the camper and turned on the propane gas inside in an effort to kill himself and the children.

When officers arrived, Weatherspoon tried to ignite the gas, causing a small fire, but deputies rescued the children and Weatherspoon before anyone was injured.

Weatherspoon was jailed on three counts of aggravated assault, one count of aggravated battery and one count of aggravated assault on a peace officer.

Saharah and her brother wound up in foster care.

Palmer said the Division of Family and Children's Services felt that she and the children were in a home fraught with domestic violence.

She said the Ringgold foster home was supposed to be a therapeutic environment.

Palmer said when she visited with the children, Saharah had "deep bruises" on her face, legs, back and arms, split lips and a bloody nose, injuries she said were reported to Children's Services on six separate occasions.

She said she doesn't believe the state agency investigated or that it "didn't investigate far enough to do anything about it."

Officials with the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Family and Children Services could not immediately discuss the case when contacted Friday.

Palmer said she's content with Catoosa County's efforts to investigate the death and said detectives stay in touch and keep her up to date.

She has created a Facebook page called "justice for baby saharah," and she started a petition Wednesday at moveon.org, a website devoted to grassroots campaigns, seeking a probe into the Division of Family and Children Services.

Meanwhile, Palmer said she continues to work and attend counseling and is trying to regain custody of her son, who is in foster care in Ellijay, Ga.

Her last moments with her daughter still haunt her. She held Saharah as her heart stopped beating, she said.

"She had one little teardrop come out of her eye. And her eye closed," Palmer said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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