SCOTT COUNTY, Miss. -- Pictures detail the joyous times of little Austin Watkins’ short life.
His final days were the complete opposite: he was starved to death at the hands of his own grandmother and aunt, according to Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee. The boy weighed just 19 pounds when he died.
"These things don't happen in this area," Lee said.
Lee is leading the investigation into Watkins’ Nov. 9 death. The sheriff puts accountability for what happened to the 4-year-old in the hands of his grandmother Janice Mowdy, 43, and aunt Stephanie Bell, 22. They’re both charged with murder and felony child abuse.
"No one else is responsible,” Lee said. “You can't blame any agencies. From our records, no one was notified."
Investigators checked records from the Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Department of Human Services and none showed any calls or complaints of abuse.
That baffles Mowdy's sister Brenda Peterson who said her niece recently grew concerned about Watkins.
"The little thing could hardly sit down,” Peterson said. “He didn't have a backside. He had to stand up the whole time."
Peterson said her niece called DHS. Even Watkins' biological mother Tammy Watkins said she noticed a red flag soon after Mowdy gained custody.
"Once she got her hands on them she wouldn't let anybody -- not even their family come and see them,” Tammy Watkins said.
Tammy Watkins lost custody of her son and his two siblings in 2005 because of an alleged drug problem. Tammy Watkins said she never complained about Mowdy to DHS.
"I knew she hated me. She never really liked me," Tammy Watkins said.
Another relative, Mowdy’s father James Watkins said he never filed authorities either.
"You can't tell her nothing. She'd blow her top if you did,” he said.
The sheriff was concerned about what family members said to 16 WAPT News during interviews. Lee said he considered filing charges against family members, but decided not to because he believes the two people charged are the right ones to pay for Watkins’ death.
DHS would not comment specifically on Austin Watkins' case, but the Sheriff's Department did reveal that Mowdy got full custody of Austin a little more than a year ago. In a case like that, DHS would drop all monitoring and control of a child, unless complaints are made.
A former DHS worker, who's didn’t want her identity revealed, said she fears that before Mowdy was given custody the ball was dropped by the agency because of a heavy caseload.
"The biggest fear is -- are there anymore kids that will slip through the cracks?" she said. "It can be overwhelming."
Before she left DHS about a year ago, the former social worker and investigator said she carried a caseload of 96 children all at one time. With such a high caseload, our former insider said she would get overburdened. By law, in all active cases, social workers are supposed to make monthly contact with each child they're assigned to. They also must attend all court proceedings for them. With so much to do, the former social worker said it's too easy for some children to fall through the cracks.
"A lot of worker’s frustrations were from the case load,” she said. “They felt that they didn't get a lot of support from their immediate supervisors in handling their cases and people become frustrated."
Lori Woodruff is deputy commissioner of DHS.
"I can't sit here and say no case has ever fallen through the cracks," Woodruff said.
Citing privacy laws, Woodruff didn't answer the question of how many cases the person overseeing Watkins' case was handling. She did say the agency is in the process of fixing caseload problems.