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Woman cleared in near-starved children case

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A former Henry County Schools special education coordinator has been acquitted of the last charges she faced in connection with the near-starving of her two grandsons in 2007, a Clayton County assistant district attorney confirmed this week.

On Aug. 9, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield issued a directed verdict of acquittal for Christiann Zelek, on four charges of failure to report a crime, said Assistant District Attorney Anece Baxter White. The case is connected to that of her daughter, the children's mother, and the father of the children, who were reportedly so strung out on prescription drugs, they did not feed the toddlers for long stretches of time.

Clayton County police had alleged that Christiann Zelek found her daughter, Tessa Zelek, and the father of the children, James McCart, unconscious in their home, and the children emaciated, in November 2007. A 2007 warrant for her arrest alleges that she cleaned up the home and removed the children from it, before calling emergency personnel about McCart and her daughter.

According to prosecutor White, and Zelek's attorney, Ricky W. Morris, Jr., the heart of the case was whether the law required Zelek to act in her role as special education coordinator, and report the near-starvation of her grandchildren to law enforcement authorities, even though she was not at work, and not dealing with students who fell under her jurisdiction.

"The judge found that she needed to be working at a school," White said, "or dealing with children that she worked with in her official duty, to be found guilty. Since she was not working at the time, and these were not children under her care, as a school system employee, the judge directed a verdict of acquittal."

With the acquittal on the four failure to report charges, the criminal case against Christiann Zelek comes to a close, White said.

She said that McCart pleaded guilty earlier, and was sentenced to 15 years in jail, for his role in the incident. Last October, Judge Benefield sentenced Tessa Zelek to 70 years in jail, after she was found guilty of depriving her children of nutrition.

During Tessa Zelek's trial, a medical expert testified that the children, who were just barely a year old, were "hours, to days" away from dying when Christiann Zelek removed them from the home, and turned them over to other family members.

Attorney Morris said he and his client were pleased with Benefield's decision to acquit Christiann Zelek. He added that his client is hopeful she can now be involved -- in some way -- in the lives of her now-3-year-old grandchildren. "The decision of the court was the right decision," Morris said. "There was no responsibility, in her official capacity, to report what happened. The police should not have arrested her to begin with."

Morris said his client is planning to resume her career as an educator with Henry County Schools, by applying for vacant positions that become available in the district. The attorney said Henry County Schools let her go, when her contract was not renewed in 2008.

Tony Pickett, the executive assistant to Henry County Schools' superintendent, confirmed that Christiann Zelek no longer works for the district, but he said he could not explain how she came to be separated from the school system.

Meanwhile, even though Christiann Zelek is no longer facing criminal charges, there is still a civil matter that could prove to be a roadblock to her resuming her professional career. According to an Aug. 26 letter from the state attorney general's office, to Clayton County Superior Court Clerk Linda Miller, there is a case between Christiann Zelek and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission pending in the Office of State Administration Hearings.

Educators take the PSC to a state administrative law judge when they are appealing sanctions issued by the commission, according to the commission's web site. Ethics officials with the PSC said they could not comment on any sanctions Christiann Zelek may be facing.

"The case against the below named educator [Christiann Zelek] is in the due process phase, as it is still awaiting the administrative hearing," said Tanis Miller, an investigator and legal liaison, in the commission's Ethics Division, in an e-mail response to questions about the issue. "Therefore, the Professional Standards Commission cannot disclose any information on the matter."

Morris said that as a criminal attorney, he is not working on any civil matters for Zelek. The attorney added that he did not know if Zelek has a civil attorney to handle any matters involving the PSC. She was unavailable for comment, as well, Morris said, because she was in Clemson, S.C., on Friday, for a Clemson University football game.

According to the PSC's web site, if an educator is found to have violated the commission's rules, the sanctions for that person could include a warning, a written reprimand, suspension of his, or her, certification to be en educator in Georgia, or it could result in the revocation of the certification.