(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: 11.18.99]

 Chief gone as DFACS starts fresh

By Bill Torpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

The head of Georgia's agency for protecting abused and neglected children has been transferred as part of a "fresh start" at the embattled agency.

Peggy Peters, director of the Division of Family and Children Services, was moved late last month to a new post involving finding new ways to use federal grant money to help children affected by substance abuse in their families, Georgia Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne said Wednesday. Peters, named DFACS director in 1997 after 23 years with the agency, could not be reached for comment.

Horne told DHR board members the agency is increasing staffing in local child protection offices by 20 percent. About 171 workers from the state welfare offices would be retrained and transferred to child protective services under Horne's plan.

DFACS has begun to change the way it evaluates cases of neglect and abuse of children and to devote more time to working with "high-risk" families, Horne said.

The commissioner also said her department would conduct a 90-day review of DFACS' child protection efforts to make systemic changes. The review team will consist of outsiders such as law enforcement officials, doctors and child advocates, who would make recommendations for improvements, said DHR spokeswoman Fran Buchanan.

Horne said the move involving the director was not related to fallout from the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, who was beaten to death under the state's protective watch. "We are evaluating ways to be more effective and accountable," she said. "I'm new and I want to bring in my new team." Steve Love, deputy director, has been named acting director of DFACS.

But Horne said Terrell's death --- and disclosures that the agency's Fulton County office issued a misleading statement afterward about its role --- has caused her to redouble efforts to improve the state's system for protecting abused children.

"I have children; I hate this," said Horne, who was appointed to head the Georgia Department of Human Resources in July by Gov. Roy Barnes. "We want to catch loopholes in the system that we saw with Terrell," she said.

Terrell died Jan. 15, 1998, after Fulton DFACS officials had received eight separate reports that the boy or his siblings were being mistreated. His grandmother, an aunt and the aunt's boyfriend are charged with Terrell's slaying.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that state officials found a host of errors in Fulton's follow-up and investigation and, on Feb. 11, asked Fulton DFACS Director Ralph Mitchell to respond with a plan of corrective action within two weeks.

Fulton DFACS never replied with a corrective plan and issued a news release in June 1998 saying state investigators found no violations of agency policies in the boy's death.

Two days later, Mitchell wrote Peters to inform her the news release was inaccurate. "Fortunately, there have been no follow-up calls from the media," Mitchell wrote.

Asked whether Mitchell would remain Fulton DFACS head, Horne mentioned that he has nearly 30 years of experience and "a lot of community support."

But she added: "The system needs more accountability for what happens. We're bringing in a new administration. We have to determine who continues. It's a fresh start."

In a recent memo to the agency's staff, Horne said corrective action plans will now be mandatory whenever violations of agency policy are found.

State officials are facing pressure on two fronts to create an outside agency to oversee DFACS operations. Attorney Don Keenan last week filed a lawsuit on Terrell's behalf that seeks to have the state create an ombudsman agency to oversee DFACS, and state Rep. Georganna Sinkfield has introduced a bill to create an ombudsman agency.

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