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

Journal: Long-overdue measures to protect children better
Wednesday, March 22, 2000

THE DEATH of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson from child abuse --- a murder the governor acknowledges the state Division of Family and Children Services had every opportunity to prevent --- may not have been in vain.

The General Assembly has passed a couple of initiatives that cast more sunlight on the secretive agency, provide an additional layer of oversight and, perhaps most significantly, give state officials more authority to hire and fire county DFACS directors. Taken together, this year's reforms make it less likely that tragic cases such as Terrell's can slip through the cracks.

On Monday, the House voted 114-14 in favor of a bill that creates a new office to investigate the state's child-protective system. We are not fans of Gov. Roy Barnes' tendency to overlay bureaucracy atop bureaucracy, such as his appointments of overseers for insurance and education, but the DFACS oversight bill goes one step further. It opens to the public the cases of children who have died after the state was informed of abuse. The state had previously used the cloak of familial confidentiality to shield its own incompetence from public view. This bill will make the division more accountable.

A separate measure revamps the statewide structure of DFACS, wisely giving the agency's director and the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources the power to fire inept county directors. Previously, only the governor and county boards had that power.

A third bill allows doctors who suspect a child is being abused to take temporary custody until a hearing is held. Our hope is that doctors will not wrongly accuse innocent parents.

Family dysfunction is pervasive these days, with too many children being raised by jealous boyfriends instead of loving fathers. The result, too often, is abuse, and state welfare workers can't be everywhere all the time. Neither are they to blame for the failure of families to provide safe, protective environments for children.

That said, when the state has evidence of abuse and fails to act, it must take responsibility, as it has in the case of Terrell Peterson. And it must resolve to do a better job of protecting children. If these bills do that, Terrell didn't die for nothing.

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