The Thursday afternoon hearing was the third in a series of hearings that Associate Juvenile Court Judge Jamie Averett said would determine if the child is dependent and if he should remain in the custody of the Division of Family and Children Services. At the beginning of the third hearing, Averett said all parties had rested in previous hearings except for counsel representing the sibling, Anna Johnson.
Dependency proceedings followed the Jan. 23 arrest of Brandy Ann Boyd, the mother of Cowart and her older brother, and Austin Payne. Boyd and Payne are charged with felony murder in connection with Cowart’s death.
The first witness Johnson called was Michael Wall, owner of the Gingerbread House pre-K learning center. When asked if he had any concerns about the older sibling’s appearance, Wall said, “none whatsoever,” several times. He also said DFCS had never contacted him and he had no reason to contact the agency.
The sibling’s mother, Brandy Ann Boyd, was represented during the hearing by attorney Samir Patel. Michael Ferguson, the older sibling’s father, was represented by attorney Blake Scoggins. Special Assistant Attorney General Lori Moss represented DFCS.
Both Brandy Boyd and Michael Ferguson were present during the hearing, though Michael Ferguson was allowed to leave during the second half due to scheduled family time with his son. Michael Ferguson was in custody after being arrested in January due to owing approximately $8,000 in child support.
The second and third witnesses were Billy and Mary Boyd, who are Brandy Boyd’s grandfather and grandmother. Both Billy and Mary Boyd said they did not see any signs of bruising on Cowart before her death. When Patel asked Billy Boyd about remembering when Cowart’s birthday was or when he saw her before she died, Billy Boyd said he could not recall.
Under questioning, both Billy and Mary Boyd said DFCS did not contact them prior to Cowart’s death. However, Billy Boyd said he and his wife had been divorced for approximately four to six months. While being questioned by Moss, Billy Boyd said the divorce proceedings lasted approximately six months from beginning to end, and that DFCS attempts to contact him or his ex-wife could have occurred when he was away at work and his wife was not home, as they were not regularly communicating. Moss also highlighted Mary Boyd’s difficulties in hearing, saying Mary Boyd may not have heard a light knock at the door.
As Scoggins questioned Mary Boyd about Cowart, Moss raised an objection.
“It seems like we’re getting into detail about Journey Cowart, which is not the subject of this proceeding. This is about [the older sibling],” Moss said.
“Ninety percent of the testimony has been about Journey Cowart and Journey Cowart’s abuse and her death,” said Averett. “She absolutely is relevant. You can continue with that line of questioning.”
Called to the stand next was Lane Peters, who is dating Brandy Boyd’s uncle, Dale Boyd. Peters said she and Dale Boyd went to DFCS sometime during August 2013 to ask the agency to find Brandy Boyd and investigate Cowart’s living conditions.
“Mainly because we felt there was probably some neglect. We did not know. We didn’t have any proof of any kind, but we felt like there was not a stable home for the baby. We didn’t know where Brandy was living. We didn’t know who she was living with, so we wanted some follow-up to make sure the baby was safe,” Peters said.
Peters said she and Dale Boyd met with DFCS employee Lucy Simpson. She said they passed along their concerns to Simpson.
“We were told [Brandy Boyd] had been doing drugs with her mother, and that she was possibly on meth again,” Peters said. “We didn’t know for sure, but we felt like it was probably a strong indication that was true, since the fact that she was not coming around the family. We had not seen the baby. In fact, the only time we saw the baby was when the baby was born.”
Peters later said the last time she saw Cowart was at the baby’s father’s funeral. Richard Blake Cowart died Thursday, April 18, 2013.
Moss objected, saying Peters’ testimony was based on hearsay, as she did not have the information firsthand about the allegations of drug use or Brandy Boyd’s location.
Averett overruled the objection.
“Here is my concern. What she is saying I am not taking to the truth of the matter, that’s in fact what was going on. I want to know what she specifically told the department to know what efforts would have been reasonable by the department to act upon,” she said. “I understand the objection and I am not taking her testimony to mean these things would be true, but if this is what she told the department, I am taking it with the purpose that this is the information that was provided by the department so I can ascertain whether or not reasonable efforts were made.”
Averett added she was looking at the “totality of the circumstances for both children.”
Moss later asked Peters why she and Dale Boyd did not directly investigate the allegations they were hearing.
“Being that concerned, and I understand your concern, did you ever drive to Allatoona Landing, you and your boyfriend, just to see if you could possibly find her mother’s trailer to see about having [a location], to make sure it was in Bartow County? Did you do anything along those lines?” Moss asked.
Peters said they did not, but said they believed DFCS would have followed up with them.
“We assumed DFCS was going to try to follow up or contact us if they needed us to do anything. We just didn’t think it was our responsibility, that we were supposed to do anything. We were just concerned. Like I said, just concerned,” Peters said.
When asked why she did not ask any other of Brandy Boyd’s family members about her whereabouts, Peters said she did not because she was not related directly to the family and did not feel it was her place.
Next to testify was Brandy Boyd’s mother, Lori Gorman, who said her daughter lived with her for a period of roughly two months during 2013. She said she last saw Cowart the Friday before her death and that she appeared to be happy.
Averett asked if Gorman had seen any bruising on her granddaughter. Gorman said she had only seen a finger-sized bruise on her head and small scratches. She said the injuries came from Cowart attempting to walk.
“Well, there was a little tap here and there ... a little bruise. She was trying to walk. She was pulling up on stuff and she fell. ... She loved trying to walk,” Gorman said.
When asked about the older sibling, Gorman said he had been left with his father for approximately two months after Brandy Boyd “just left him there” after dropping him off for a weekend. She said the child’s relationship with his farther was positive and the child “worships” Michael Ferguson.
The last witness during the hearing was Michael Ferguson’s mother, Sharon Ferguson, who he lived with, in addition to his father, prior to his arrest. The older sibling was living at the residence until Polk County DFCS removed him on Jan. 22, Sharon Ferguson said.
While Michael Ferguson was taking care of the older sibling, Sharon Ferguson said under questioning, they drove him four or five times to Brandy Boyd’s apartment to stay the weekend. The last visit occurred the weekend before Cowart’s death.
“We took [the older sibling] to Brandy on Saturday. ... It was on the, let’s see, Martin Luther King [Day] was on the 20th, he was out of school for that. We picked him up then, on that day, on that Monday,” Sharon Ferguson said.
Sharon Ferguson said she saw Journey for approximately 15 to 20 minutes the Saturday they dropped the older sibling off.
“Briefly. Brandy had laid her down for a nap. I went down to see her for just a second, and she was covered up, going to sleep for a nap,” she said.
When asked if she saw any bruises, Sharon Ferguson said she did not see anything. If she had, she added, it “would have been reported immediately.”
Sharon Ferguson said the older sibling had told her that Brandy Boyd once screamed and cursed at him. When asked by Averett what Brandy Boyd said, Sharon Ferguson said it was nothing worse than “damn.”
“Just that’s what he would say, ‘She would get made and yell and scream at me,’” she said.
The hearing ended before all testimony was finished. Averett said the next hearing would be held Friday, March 7, at 1:30 p.m., and it will be the last.
“I certainly would hope we can be finished by 5 o’clock. We’re not coming back another day, so if we’re here until 10 o’clock Friday night, I’ll be the best Friday night date you ever had,” she said. “So you know, we don’t need to continue to drag this out. I will make sure the deputies are aware that we will be going late if need be on the 7th.”