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

Constitution: Buck stops with DFACS in preventing kids' deaths
Wednesday, May 10, 2000

In horrific child abuse deaths, such as that of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, the "system" suffers most of the blame. But a child's death is too great a loss to simply shrug off as a glitch in the system. If Georgia hopes to reform its troubled child protective services, it must name names when somebody falls down on the job.

In Terrell's case, the accountability ultimately falls on Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services head Ralph Mitchell. Mitchell rightfully faces dismissal from his $107,000-a-year post because of his office's mishandling of Terrell's case and others.

The little boy was beaten to death in January 1998, allegedly by his grandmother, aunt and aunt's boyfriend. Mitchell contends that Terrell's death reflects "a multiple agency failure." He's right.

Hospital staff neglected to report Terrell's burns. A preschool teacher never contacted officials about her overwhelming suspicions of abuse. A police officer who could have taken custody of the boy at a crucial juncture did not.

But of all those multiple agencies, only one had Terrell's well-being as its sole focus. DFACS is supposed to be an abused child's Rock of Gibraltar. The agency exists to protect Georgia's most vulnerable children, to save them from adults who would beat them, burn them and murder them.

Yet DFACS helped deliver Terrell to his abusers. Mitchell says the fact that the child was in his grandmother's custody gets his office off the hook. But DFACS encouraged Terrell's mother to sign over guardianship of her children to the grandmother. Terrell and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports of abuse or neglect to the state, but he was still in the custody of his grandmother when he died, weighing only 29 pounds.

Mitchell made matters even worse by lying afterward, insisting "all policies and procedures were followed." Yet Mitchell had received a blistering state report outlining his staff's mistakes, as well as a critical report from the local child fatality review team. Mitchell wrote a memo to his boss admitting that the information released to the press and public was not true. "Fortunately, there have been no further calls from the media to follow up or contest the information contained in that statement," he wrote.

Other troubling cases have occurred under Mitchell's watch. One is that of Tavelle Davis, a 2-year-old who was abused and neglected. Atlanta Constitution staffer Jane Hansen reported that, while the medical examiner ruled Tavelle's death a homicide in 1996, nobody did anything about it.

A year before his death, Tavelle was brought to the hospital by his guardian. She admitted shaking him. He was underweight, covered in sores and experiencing such grave breathing problems that he was put on a ventilator. The hospital concluded that Tavelle was a victim of shaken baby syndrome, a severe and deadly form of abuse.

A hospital social worker begged DFACS not to send Tavelle home with the guardian. DFACS made a half-hearted effort to remove the child, but didn't even subpoena the social worker or the doctors. Without the critical hospital testimony, a Fulton judge sent the brain-damaged baby home with the guardian. A year later, Tavelle was dead.

Not every child can be saved by DFACS. But those who could have been and were not deserve more than cliche responses about system breakdowns. Georgians are starting to discover the names of the children who died from preventable abuse. Now, it's time to name those who failed them.

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