Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
2000 GEORGIA LEGISLATURE: 'Terrell's law' seen filling gap in abuse cases
In death, Terrell Peterson may have left a legacy of hope for other abused children in Georgia.
Known as the Terrell Peterson Act, proposed legislation would give doctors the authority to override police in deciding whether a child they believe has been abused can be removed from parental custody and turned over to the state Department of Family and Children Services until a court hearing.
"I don't want to see another Terrell Peterson," Sen. Nadine Thomas (D-Ellenwood), one of the bill's sponsors, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
The severely malnourished 5-year-old Atlanta boy died in January 1998 after eight reports alleging abuse and neglect of him and his siblings. His grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.
On at least one occasion, Atlanta police were called by officials at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital who were concerned about injuries Peterson had received. Under current law, doctors are required to call police and DFACS when abuse is suspected, but they have no authority to hold the child.
Under the provisions of Senate Bill 315, doctors who suspect abuse can take a youngster into custody without a court order and without parental consent if they believe "the child is in a circumstance or condition that presents an imminent danger to the child's life or health" and there is not enough time to get a court order.
The doctor would be required to make an effort to inform the parents, guardian or custodian of the child of the emergency removal and would be required to inform the court of the action orally and in writing within 24 hours. The bill calls for the doctor to retain the child in his or her capacity as a member of a staff of a hospital or similar institution. The child would be kept there until DFACS took custody.
When this would have to be done was unclear in the legislation, although Thomas said she believed it should be done within 72 hours. Under the bill doctors who keep a child could not be held legally liable for this action.
During the hearing, committee members were highly critical of DFACS and the Department of Human Resources, which oversees that agency. Sen. Rene Kemp (D-Hinesville), committee chairman, said Georgia is doing poorly protecting its children from abuse and neglect. "We ain't doing a very good job and we've got to do better," Kemp said.
Lawmakers also expressed misgivings about provisions of the bill that would require the children to be turned over to DFACS caseworkers, most of whom already are overburdened by the number of cases they handle.
But Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, said turning these children over to an agency other than DFACS is "just going to create something like DFACS and what we need to do is fix DFACS."
The bill, said Adams, is "a gap that Terrell Peterson needed filled or he would not have died. Doctors didn't have the authority to do what was needed to save him."
DHR spokesman Peter Lee said the agency is "open to any discussions that address improvements in our child welfare system." Lee said it is too early to tell what type of impact this bill would have on the state's child protective services.
Mary Sawyer, a pediatrician at Emory University Hospital who also works at Grady Memorial Hospital's emergency room, told the committee that on weekends and at night it's difficult to get in touch with detectives who deal with juvenile cases and with DFACS workers, as current law requires of doctors who suspect abuse.
Even then, doctors and police often disagree about whether the child should be returned to the home, she said. This bill would allow doctors to be the final authority in making the final decision.
Sen. Clay Land (R-Columbus), expressed concerns that doctors would be given the power to overrule police and parents. He also said doctors, worried about lawsuits, might put too many youngsters in temporary custody. But the bill does not address whether doctors would be held legally liable if they did not hold a child and something happened after they returned home.
Ellen Williams, director of advocacy for the Georgia Council on Child Abuse, said one doctor in Iowa, which has a similar law, has taken temporary custody of children only four times in 15 years. The legislation, she said, actually would put more pressure on police to remove children from potentially abusive households.
"Doctors are very reluctant to use it," Williams said.
Kemp said the bill, as written, needs more teeth that would hold state agencies accountable for their failures. "I really don't think the right hand knows what the left hand is doing in our system right now, and we really need some accountability," Kemp said. He said he would hold another hearing on the bill in two weeks.
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