(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: 11.23.99]
DFACS chief picked; watchdog likely
By Bill Torpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
Did 5-year-old Terrell have to die?
State under fire in 5-year-old's death
Gov. Roy Barnes named a new director for Georgia's child protection agency Monday, even as he announced support for an advocate's office that would look over her shoulder.
Juanita Blount-Clark, 47, was heralded by the governor as an "outsider" who will "look at the Division of Family and Children Services with a fresh set of eyes."
"That's important because her job is nothing less than a thorough re-examination of its personnel and operations from the ground up," Barnes said in introducing her.
The governor also said he will support legislation to create an Office of Children's Advocate, an entity separate from DFACS with "the power to investigate and intervene in cases at will."
"Juanita will have a lot more success reforming the state's foster care system if caseworkers and supervisors know that an independent children's advocate is looking over their shoulders," he said. "This job is simply too big for either someone on the inside or someone on the outside to accomplish alone."
Barnes said the advocate would have "unfettered access" to case files, but the public still would not. Records of the agency's cases are generally closed to the public, although state law allows researchers to inspect the records if they can prove in court they have a legitimate need.
The governor said he sees the advocate's position as "an independent inspector general with powers not dependent on the commissioner [of the Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFACS]. It can advocate against the department if necessary."
Barnes said the appointment had nothing to do with news coverage on the circumstances preceding the beating death of Terrell Peterson, although he referred to the 5-year-old boy in his announcement. Terrell died in January 1998 despite eight previous reports to DFACS that the boy or his siblings were being neglected or abused.
"I don't envision an immediate shake-up," said Blount-Clark, an 18-year Department of Public Health employee who heads The Family Connection, a private-public agency that works to establish local coalitions to help children.
"Juanita is a relentlessly positive person and is undaunted by the challenges that those kids face," said Russ Hardin, vice president of the Whitehead Foundation, a private charitable agency that has helped fund The Family Connection. "Juanita has been the pied piper of Family Connections, going all over the state working with localities."
Blount-Clark will take over the department Dec. 16. Steve Love will remain interim director until then.
Barnes spokeswoman Joselyn Butler said the governor's office is still trying to work out the details about the scope of the powers and duties of the proposed advocate.
State Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), who this year introduced a bill for an ombudsman/advocate, said the new post must have subpoena power to get records and to talk to children. It also needs the ability "to, if necessary, file suit against the agency itself" to force changes.
"If Georgia is serious, then you need an ombudsman with some teeth," said Sinkfield, who chairs the House Children and Youth Committee. "You have to have some power or they'll get all sorts of runaround."
Attorney Don Keenan, who is suing the state because of the Terrell Peterson case, said he is "deeply disappointed" in Barnes' choice to head DFACS and in how the child advocate would be picked.
Keenan said Blount-Clark is "someone who never criticized DFACS, someone who is intimately knowledgeable with all the personalities there. She is not a fresh face. She is no outsider."
Barnes noted that DHR Commissioner Audrey Horne is moving 171 budgeted positions from welfare casework to child protection units in DFACS. He said those workers must be retrained. The idea is to cut down on the caseload and ease worker burnout, which is systemic.
A state audit revealed the child protection section in Gwinnett County had a 52 percent turnover rate in fiscal 1999. This turnover rate, the audit stressed, has "had a substantial impact on the section's ability to complete their investigations in a timely manner."
Blount-Clark takes over an agency that also has been under fire for miscalculating food stamp benefits. The state miscalculated $73 million in food stamp benefits last year and has exceeded the national average for food stamp error for nine of the past 10 years. Georgia has drawn more than $9.7 million in food stamp sanctions since 1986.
-- Staff writer Craig Schneider contributed to this article.
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