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

[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1.13.2000]

Fulton at heart of abuse inquiry

By Jane O. Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Just weeks before Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, a baby starved to death.

His family was well known to the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services because an older brother had been hospitalized for malnourishment.

But a caseworker assigned to the brother's case took an extended leave and no one was reassigned to the investigation. An emaciated 3-month-old Terrell Thomas died before anyone knew he existed.

He is another Terrell who died in Fulton County after his family was reported to child protective services workers. Five-year-old Terrell Peterson, whose 1998 death has been well publicized in recent months, also was the subject of abuse and neglect complaints to Fulton County DFACS.

According to DFACS files released under court order to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at least 90 children died in Fulton County from 1996 through the end of 1998 after someone reported their families for abuse or neglect.

That is by far the largest number of deaths from any Georgia county in the three-year time span, with most of those children in the city of Atlanta.

On one hand, the high number of deaths signifies the intractable social problems of drugs, poverty and crime that plague any urban area.

But it also signifies something else.

Among the children who died in Fulton County, more than a third were later the subjects of critical reports by state officials, who found numerous failures in how the Fulton Department of Family and Children Services had handled the children's cases before their deaths.

Tuesday, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents swept across the state, confiscating files of 13 abused and neglected children who died after their families had been reported for abuse or neglect.

Five of those were Fulton cases. In addition, the GBI was given access to all of Fulton County DFACS Director Ralph Mitchell's records. Many of the deaths in Fulton were among the most egregious in the state, and the post-mortem reviews the most scathing, suggesting many of the deaths could have been prevented.

Repeatedly state officials found violations of state policy and practice. Errors by DFACS caseworkers included waiting days before responding to a child's life-threatening situation, failing to conduct thorough investigations, closing cases without justification and rarely holding parents accountable for getting drug treatment or meeting other criteria for keeping their children.

After Terrell Thomas' death, state officials questioned whether the caseworker had even visited the children's home.

"It is incongruous that the worker states she made field visits on [seven dates] and no mention of this newborn is made," the state director of social services wrote county administrators. "It appears that the timely reassignment of this case may have made the agency aware of this medically fragile child and allowed us to help preserve his life."

In a response to the state's criticism, county officials said the caseworker was carrying 45 cases at the time of her leave - nearly three times the recommended average caseload. Like a hospital emergency room, the Fulton officials had been forced to triage her caseload, finding other cases more demanding of attention.

Of the DFACS records seized Tuesday, Terrell Peterson's file was among the five fatal cases confiscated from Fulton DFACS. Terrell Thomas' was not. And there are others:

  • One girl died at 17 of an aneurysm that resulted in a brain hemorrhage. But from the time she was 9, the child was the subject of 13 reports of abuse and neglect. Authorities from a school principal to an Atlanta police officer to a juvenile court worker reported to Fulton DFACS that the child was being beaten at home with a broom, sexually abused, threatening suicide because of the abuse, and eventually pregnant and in the hospital after she had been beaten on the stomach at home.

    Time and again, DFACS closed the case, often with little investigation. Eventually, the girl died. Her mother said she had looked fine the night before she was found dead in bed. After her death, the state ordered the Fulton office to keep a case open on the family for the purpose of protecting other children in the household.

  • When Demonte Cheely was 4 months old, an Atlanta police officer reported the baby had allegedly been abused after returning from a long visit with his parent. Emergency medical personnel "confirmed foul play," the records say. The caseworker saw the bruises. But the officer's report was discounted by Fulton DFACS as "unconfirmed" and the case was closed.

    Less than a month later, Demonte returned to the hospital with blunt force injuries to his head, neck trunk and extremities. His death was ruled a homicide. In reviewing the case, state officials learned the caseworker had closed the case because she could not confirm who had abused the baby. But such a confirmation is not necessary to protect a baby known to be the victim of an adult's abuse.

    "This action is incorrect," they wrote, saying they had "serious concerns about the agency's management of this case."

  • One baby died shortly after Mitchell, the Fulton DFACS director, ordered the case closed. The infant girl had been born premature and anemic to a mentally ill woman who had gotten no prenatal care, according to her file.

    DFACS first became involved shortly after her birth when hospital staff reported the mother was attempting to kill the baby.

    In a formal letter to DFACS, a physician wrote that staff had observed the mother take a pair of scissors and try to cut the IV tubes that were keeping the baby alive, that she had "flipped" the baby in her bassinette and nearly broken her arm. He told DFACS the infant was seriously ill and at risk of heart failure.

    In all, three reports from two hospitals and police sought immediate protection of the baby from her mother.

    The infant went home anyway. She was 5 months old when she died.

    The baby's death was ruled SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome.

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