Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

State must do more to protect children
Sunday • December 12

In Georgia, too many young victims of abuse or neglect die because the state's child protection system safeguards the adults rather than the children. The fear of stigmatizing parents and caregivers outweighs the fear of what might happen to the child.

As a legislator said three years ago, "We've ruined a bunch of kids bending over backwards to help sorry parents."

That legislator is now the governor of Georgia. Given the view he expressed then, Gov. Roy Barnes ought to be prepared to pull out all the stops to reform a failing child protection system. He should increase the budget for protective services workers, insist on enforcement of laws that would separate children from lousy parents and end the secrecy that has contributed to the abuse and neglect of innocents.

Massive reforms introduced a decade ago have not lessened the number of dead children. But the public seldom learns about these deaths because of confidentiality laws that supposedly protect children but actually shield their killers and hide the weak links in Georgia's social services system.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution waged a long court battle with the state to open up the records of 844 children known to have died over a five-year period, even after coming to the attention of social workers. In a report last Sunday called "Georgia's Forgotten Children," reporter Jane O. Hansen detailed the brutality that claimed the lives of five of them:

The state placed 6-month-old Kendall Hunt in foster care after doctors documented burns and beatings. But Glynn County Juvenile Court Judge Donald Manning returned him to his teenage mother despite the pleas of a physician and several professional child advocates. Less than three months later, the infant was dead, allegedly drowned by the mother's boyfriend.

Nathan Dickson was 4 when he was beaten and drowned. His state records chronicle a life of hell at the hands of his stepfather, who ultimately killed him.

Octavious Sims, 1, was murdered by his parents. An autopsy showed that the baby, who was just learning to walk, was starved, immersed in boiling water and finally beaten to death.

At 13, Pam Byron reported her abusive home life, but a Division of Family and Children Services caseworker believed she was safe. When Pam later complained that a relative was making sexual advances, a caseworker advised her to shove a chair against her bedroom door at night. Pam was later strangled, doused with lighter fluid and set on fire by a cousin after she rejected his sexual advances.

A child protection system so incompetent demands fundamental reform:

End the secrecy. Open up DFACS records and proceedings to public scrutiny. In 1995, Georgia admitted the public into juvenile proceedings in most felony cases. The reasoning was that community awareness could help to prevent youth crime. Yet the state contends that the public has no right to know about crimes in which children are the victims rather than the criminals.

Treat child abuse as a crime. Police should be assigned investigatory control. Violence against children shouldn't be dismissed as a social problem and handed off to social workers who are untrained in ferreting out criminal evidence.

Terminate parental rights of serial abusers. Stop giving parents second and third chances to kill their kids. The state has to decide early in its investigations which families can be salvaged with a reasonable expenditure of resources and which are beyond hope. Though that may sound harsh, the alternative is harsher --- more dead children.

Enforce independent reviews of children's deaths. Though Georgia mandates independent reviews of the deaths of children, the reviews are sporadic. Even worse, the review teams aren't bound to release their findings even to DFACS. As Eva Patillo, director of the Office of State Fatality Review, said, "When it's all said and done, what's done to correct it?"

Increase numbers, pay and training of child protection workers. Georgia social workers field impossible work loads. The state has already announced plans to transfer 171 workers from other departments to child protection services, and Department of Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne is trying to find $2.8 million in the budget to boost salaries.

Horne must also ensure that those workers are highly skilled. After all, they must mount the strong evidence needed when cases are brought to terminate parental rights. Higher pay would help draw those who are better prepared. The salaries of social workers with college degrees are often lower than the starting pay of Atlanta garbage collectors.

Handed a system near complete meltdown, Horne has her work cut out for her. She could use Barnes' help with resources.

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