(This is a copy of the original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1.13.2000] Ralph Mitchell

Fulton's DFACS boss investigated

By Bill Torpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Three months ago, Ralph Mitchell, longtime director of Fulton County's child protection agency, was honored at a county reception with "A Voice for Victims Award."

He was also looking at a possible promotion to a high-level state post.

Today, his agency is at the center of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe that concerns possible criminal falsifying of files. Fulton is one of six counties where the local Department of Family and Children Services is being investigated.

The GBI was ordered this week by the governor to retrieve files from Mitchell's office. Agents also visited the office of Peg Peters, the former state director of DFACS.

Mitchell, 59, oversees an agency with more than 1,200 workers and an annual budget of more than $100 million. He is paid, with county supplements, $107,000 a year - $14,000 more than the state head of DFACS.

Mitchell and his department came under criticism in October when an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story outlined the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, who died in January 1998 despite eight previous reports to DFACS that the boy or his siblings had been neglected or abused.

Fulton DFACS' handling of the Peterson case was full of errors, but what his office did afterward may have made things worse. On June 3, 1998, Mitchell's office told the public that "all policies and procedures were followed."

In fact, Mitchell had received a scathing report from state investigators, telling him his staff made many errors in their investigation of Terrell. Also, Mitchell's own office twice issued critical reports of the Terrell investigation - in March and May 1998.

Two days after proclaiming his office had handled the Peterson case by the book, Mitchell wrote a memo to Peters, saying the press release was not true. "Fortunately, there have been no further calls from the media to followup or contest the information contained in that statement," Mitchell wrote.

In November, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed a new state DFACS director and vowed a shakeup in the agency. He referred to the Terrell Peterson case by name.

The next day, Mitchell went on medical leave, citing heart disease. Peters has been moved to another post.

Asked recently about the false press release, Mitchell, 59, blamed it on Sherekaa Osorio, his office's public relations director. "Sherekaa was in error and almost lost her job," he said. "I caught it and sent Peg Peters a note."

But in an interview last year with the newspaper, Mitchell blamed a caseworker for the false press release, saying she fed Osorio and him the wrong information.

State officials were supposed to correct the errant press release, he said. State officials say it was Mitchell's responsibility. No one corrected the public record.

Osorio this week agreed that she wrote the news release but can't remember if she ran it by her boss. She said she usually runs press releases by her bosses.

But if Ororio almost lost her job, her job evaluation a month later didn't reflect it. According to that report, written by Mitchell, Osorio "exceeded" her performance in "distribution of press releases." She also "communicates accurate information to others."

And in January 1999, Mitchell got a memo from Peters thanking him "for all your hard work and dedication." He got a 10 percent raise, maxing him out in his job classification.

Mitchell, who has headed Fulton DFACS since 1986, said, "We work in a flawed system with systemic problems. I have 1,500 [employees]; I cannot micromanage them all. If a Coca-Cola driver runs a red light and kills someone, the newspaper never goes against the head of Coke."

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