Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Terrell's death not forgotten
Before this year's General Assembly session, Gov. Roy Barnes carefully groomed education reform to be the star of his legislative agenda.
But as the session winds down, the haunting image of a 5-year-old Atlanta boy who suffered a lifetime of abuse and neglect before his death in 1998 may become an even more enduring legacy of this legislative session.
Lawmakers have quietly pushed through a series of measures designed to provide a broader safety net for at-risk children such as Terrell Peterson.
Two bills relating to child welfare await final action before the legislative session ends this week --- and both appear to be good bets to pass. Two more, including the Terrell Peterson Bill, have been given final approval by the House and Senate and are on the governor's desk awaiting his signature.
"I'm encouraged," said Dr. Randell Alexander, director of the Center for Child Abuse at Morehouse School of Medicine and a nationally known expert on child abuse who lobbied on behalf of the Terrell Peterson Bill. "I think these are some good first steps toward what we need for an overall comprehensive plan to combat child abuse."
The issue gained prominence with a series of stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Terrell's death that cited serious shortcomings in the state's child protective services system. Lawmakers at each step invoked Terrell's name as a symbol of how the state's child welfare system failed him and hundreds of other youngsters.
Terrell and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports of abuse or neglect to state officials before he died, yet he continued to live with his grandmother, the focus of some of the allegations. His grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.
"I don't want to see another Terrell Peterson," an emotional Sen. Nadine Thomas (D-Ellenwood) said during one hearing on the bill, which she wrote. Thomas' bill gives doctors the right to take temporary custody of children they believe to be in imminent danger from abuse or neglect.
While Barnes' education reform package was picked apart and debated nonstop during the session, the bills safeguarding children were passed with little of the normal partisan bickering and virtually no dissent.
Sandra Wood, executive director of the Georgia Council on Child Abuse, said she is encouraged by both the bills and the fact that the Department of Human Resources has budgeted $11.2 million in the next fiscal year for early intervention programs that are designed to prevent abuse.
"These are all going to provide something that is more proactive on child abuse than what we've had in the past," Wood said. "We just have to make sure they are not the last steps we take."
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