(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 11.10.99]
Abuse suit: State under fire in 5-year-old's death
By Jane O. Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
* Did 5-year-old Terrell have to die?
Five-year-old Terrell Peterson did not have to die, nor should other children die after coming under the state's protective watch, according to an Atlanta law firm that plans to file a lawsuit today on his behalf.
Georgia child protective services workers and their supervisors had ample opportunities, yet recklessly failed, to prevent the death of Terrell, who was beaten and near-starved to death last year, the Keenan Law Firm charges. The firm's lawsuit, to be filed in Fulton County State Court, demands a series of changes in the state's handling of abused and neglected children.
Terrell died Jan. 15, 1998, after various people made eight separate reports to the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services alleging maltreatment of Terrell or his siblings. His grandmother, his aunt and his aunt's boyfriend are due to go on trial next year on murder charges in what Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard has called "one of the most horrific cases of child abuse ever seen in Fulton County."
But at the heart of the civil case is what the law firm calls "repeated and countless cases of governmental neglect" that contributed not only to Terrell's death but to the deaths of "countless" other Georgia children.
The child welfare agency's "widespread failure to meet its legal obligations to children and families is long-standing and well known," states the lawsuit, which names as defendant the Georgia Department of Human Resources' Division of Family and Children Services. "For at least the past decade, these failings have been thoroughly documented and repeatedly brought to defendants' attention."
The mission of the division and its county affiliates is to protect children who are abused and neglected at home. Where possible, the agency's goal is to reunify children and their families, but increasingly the emphasis is on first protecting children from dangerous adults. Last year, Georgia investigated 47,007 reports of child abuse and neglect.
State officials, who have anticipated the Keenan lawsuit, said the state attorney general has advised them not to comment on the case.
Attorney Don Keenan, who has successfully sued to challenge the department's policies before, said the lawsuit seeks to create a state ombudsman office that would make sure that Georgia's child protective services agency "follows the law and protects children."
"I firmly believe this case will outline abuses that will outrage the general public, business community and politicians enough that for once they will allocate the necessary funds and resources for the future of our children," Keenan said.
He said if he does not get the government to fund such an oversight office, he will seek enough money in a settlement to fund an independent advocacy group, such as Children's Rights in New York City, which has successfully sued seven states or cities in similar actions.
Peter Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, indicated Tuesday that an oversight office might not be out of the question. "We have no formal position on an ombudsman at this time, but we are studying it," he said. "And we will work closely with the Legislature on any proposal for an ombudsman office."
The lawsuit asks for unspecified monetary damages that would go toward reforming the state's child protective services system.
"This is not about money," Keenan said. "This is about changing the system." He said Reliance Trust Co., a state-chartered bank, has been appointed by a probate judge as administrator of Terrell's estate. Keenan said his firm would not seek any fees for its work on the case and that none of Terrell's relatives, including the child's mother, would benefit from any settlement.
Terrell's family came to the attention of child welfare workers in 1991. During the next four years, state records show, people called seven times to report that the children's mother was on drugs and was leaving them home alone, locking them in a bedroom for days or leaving them to beg neighbors for food. Eventually, in 1996, Fulton caseworkers pressured the mother to relinquish custody of her children to their paternal grandmother, Pharina Peterson, then 48.
On Nov. 28, 1996, four months after Terrell went to live with Peterson, he was brought by ambulance to Hughes Spalding Hospital, where doctors found the child covered in cuts and bruises. Police and medical records quote Terrell as saying his grandmother had beaten him with a shoe and belts. An eighth report -- this time alleging physical abuse -- was called in to the Fulton Department of Family and Children Services, and police charged Peterson with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, for the beating of her grandson.
But when her case came up in court, records show, the child protective services worker failed to appear, and the charge was dismissed.
"Astoundingly, the charges of child abuse were dismissed because of the total lack of any concern for the child's safety," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that Terrell became the target of abuse after his grandmother learned he was not her son's child and therefore not her blood relative.
In February 1997, the department closed its case, leaving Terrell in the home of his grandmother.
Less than a year later, on the night of Jan. 15, 1998, an ambulance brought Terrell back to Hughes Spalding Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy showed the child had died from long-term abuse and near-starvation. At 5 years, he weighed only 29 pounds.
Two internal state investigations found numerous violations of policy and practice that contributed to Terrell's death. The lawsuit lists 21 violations, including the caseworker's failure to appear in court, the failure to monitor complaints and the alleged falsification of records regarding visits to Terrell's home.
It also charges the state with covering up at the highest levels by publicly announcing that state and local investigations had cleared them of any wrongdoing.
More than 10 years ago, Keenan sued the same agency after 3-year-old Kathy Jo Taylor was beaten into an irreversible coma while in a foster home. In 1989, a consent decree in federal court required sweeping changes in the state's foster care system -- changes Keenan says have never been enforced.
Among them, the court banned the use of corporal punishment in foster care, required caseworkers to make every effort to place children with relatives when they had to be removed from their home, and demanded that caseworkers make a face-to-face visit with foster children at least once a month.
"Those three things were the hallmark of Kathy Jo's case, any one of which would have saved Kathy Jo, any one of which would have saved Terrell," Keenan said this week.
Kathy Jo, who regained only minimal functioning, died in 1997 at age 17.
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