Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
DHR chief: 'We failed this child'
For the first time, a high-ranking state official has taken responsibility for failing to prevent the abuse death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson.
"I think we failed this child," said Audrey Horne, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. "Looking at all the places we could have helped him, I say we failed him."
Horne's comment, made in an interview following a legislative hearing into her agency's budget, represents the strongest statement of official remorse since Terrell's death in January 1998. It came as she asked legislators for more money to protect other children.
Eight reports had been made to the Fulton County Division of Family and Children Services alleging that Terrell or his siblings were being neglected or abused. Terrell's grandmother, his aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his slaying.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's detailed examination of Terrell's death last October has prompted a state review of how Georgia protects its most vulnerable children.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the deaths of 13 children under DFACS supervision.
Gov. Roy Barnes is seeking $26 million in new state spending on child protection.
And the governor wants lawmakers to create an independent agency to monitor how DFACS performs its job.
During Friday's budget hearing, state Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) gave Horne a chance to excuse the agency's actions in Terrell's death. James noted that several child protection officials have claimed that DFACS was not, in fact, responsible for supervising the boy's care when he died.
"Is that true?" James asked. "If so, why wasn't a press conference called? We've gotten national attention."
Horne declined to specifically answer James' question, citing the GBI investigation and a lawsuit that blames the state for Terrell's death.
But Horne said: "Whether we were involved, the question being asked is, whether we should have been involved."
The Peterson case was handled by the Fulton County DFACS office, and director Ralph Mitchell at first publicly said his employees had acted properly. A few days later, however, he told his superiors procedures had not been followed.
Horne --- who took over the state social services agency in June, 18 months after Terrell's death --- told lawmakers that child welfare is "our most critical need." And she pledged to cooperate with the police investigation into the deaths of Terrell and 12 others.
"We know it is a necessary step toward achieving the system Georgia's children deserve," Horne said.
She said her agency has "already acted to improve child protection" by transferring 171 staff members into front-line caseworker jobs, creating five teams to investigate children's deaths and improving social workers' training. The employee transfers, she said, would reduce the caseload for workers to an average of about 21 --- still higher than the 15 recommended by national social work groups.
Horne acknowledged that many problems remain. Among them, she said, is the lack of data on the children her agency is supposed to protect.
She pledged to get up and running a computer system designed to track children reported to have been abused or neglected --- a system that still isn't operating although it was planned seven years ago.
The $26 million request in new child-protection spending is part of an $85.9 million increase the governor is seeking in the human resources budget. The agency's budget request totals $1.33 billion.
The department wants to increase salaries for child-protection caseworkers, expand a program to determine the appropriate treatment approaches for children in foster care and another to intervene in "at-risk" families before abuse and neglect occur.
An $11 million early-intervention program would provide services to families of 2,400 newborns where abuse or neglect are considered possible, as well as to 1,700 children in families where reports of maltreatment or substance abuse have been substantiated. The "Healthy Families" program is already offered in 15 counties.
The services would be provided by private agencies working on state contracts, Horne said.
"We need an arsenal of responses," she told legislators. "There are times when DFACS is not the best method, and probably not the most welcome presence in the home."
The private agencies, she said, would provide parental training that "people may not be willing to accept from a DFACS worker."
In response to questions from lawmakers, Horne said using private agencies was not a way to absolve DFACS of blame in future abuse or neglect cases.
"It is not meant to add a layer of confusion about who's in charge," she said. "Ultimately, when anything goes wrong, everybody calls us."
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