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

DFACS chief is suspended
Mismanagement of Fulton office alleged in wake of boy's death, GBI probe.
Ron Martz - Staff
Wednesday, May 3, 2000

The head of the county child protective agency accused of mishandling one of the cases that resulted in the death of a child and set off a state investigation has been targeted for firing unless he can convince state officials he was not negligent or insubordinate.

Ralph Mitchell, longtime director of the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services, the largest such office in the state, was informed Monday in a seven-page letter from state DFACS director Juanita Blount-Clark of the charges against him.

Mitchell, who makes about $107,000 a year, was suspended with pay pending his decision on whether to seek a hearing before Audrey Horne, commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources, whose agency oversees state DFACS operations.

It was Mitchell who publicly exonerated his staff of any blame in the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson although he was aware of a scathing state report and two internal memos that blamed his office for mishandling the case.

Terrell died in January 1998 after he and his siblings had been the subject of eight reports to DFACS alleging neglect and abuse. The boy's grandmother, his aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.

Blount-Clark's letter said the responses of the Fulton County office in the Peterson case, with one exception, "were severely mismanaged and . . . negligently handled by the assigned staff."

The Peterson case and four others handled by the Fulton office were subjects of a larger GBI probe into the deaths of children in the care of the child protective agency in six counties. The GBI has closed 10 of the 13 cases without filing criminal charges. The GBI has not disclosed whether any of the Fulton County cases are still open.

Blount-Clark said the department's charges and evidence against Mitchell "demonstrate repeated, significant and willful neglect of your duties and responsibilities as Fulton County DFCS Administrator and County Director."

Mitchell, who has been on medical leave since November, could not be reached for comment and did not respond to telephone messages left at his home.

He can appeal the proposed firing if he chooses in a May 25 hearing before Horne and an administrative law judge. According to Blount-Clark's letter, Horne will have the final decision on Mitchell's fate.

Peter Lee, DHR spokesman, said neither Horne nor Blount-Clark could comment further on the case because it is a pending personnel matter. Lee also said no decision has been made on whether a new director will be named if Mitchell is fired.

Fulton County DFACS is the state's largest with more than 1,300 employees and an annual budget of more than $105.6 million.

Fulton County DFACS became the subject of intense criticism from legislators and advocates for children after a series of stories in the Journal-Constitution last fall detailing shortcomings in the agency and Terrell's death.

"There are going to be several people from the state staff to manage the day-to-day operations of the office" until the case is resolved, Lee said. They will be supervised by Beverly Jones, recently hired as a special field coordinator to oversee Fulton County DFACS.

Rep. Sharon Trense (R-Atlanta), a longtime critic of the Fulton office, said replacing Mitchell is "just one small piece that needs to be done statewide. A lot more needs to be done."

Trense was the primary author of a bill signed recently by Gov. Roy Barnes that gives Horne more authority in hiring and firing county DFACS directors. Previously that had been reserved for county DFACS boards and the governor.

Although the bill will not become law until July 1, DHR officials said Horne could fire Mitchell for cause before then.

If Mitchell is fired, it will be for cause, according to Blount-Clark. That means he will not be eligible for involuntary separation benefits under the Employees Retirement System of Georgia, Blount-Clark said in the letter, possibly significantly reducing his pension.

Mitchell, who reportedly was planning to retire in December with 30 years' state service, could have received about 70 percent of his base state salary (which excludes county supplements) of $88,100, or about $61,670 a year for life if he were eligible for involuntary separation benefits and if they were approved by the retirement system. If he is fired for cause, his pension could drop to about 55 percent of his salary, according to Jim Larche, deputy director of the Employees Retirement System. That would amount to about $48,400 a year.

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