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

Suspended chief vows to fight for DFACS job
Ron Martz - Staff
Thursday, May 4, 2000

Charging he is being made a scapegoat for statewide failures in child protective services, Ralph Mitchell vowed Wednesday to fight his pending dismissal as head of the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services.

Mitchell, suspended Monday with pay, denied all the charges leveled against him in a letter from state DFACS director Juanita Blount-Clark. The letter cited insubordination and mismanagement of his office and the handling of the Terrell Peterson case.

The 5-year-old Atlanta boy's January 1998 death --- after eight reports to the state of neglect and abuse of him and his siblings --- launched a statewide GBI investigation. Terrell's grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.

"I thought it was grossly, grossly unfair," Mitchell said of the seven-page letter that was hand-delivered to him in his Fulton County DFACS office.

Mitchell, 59, said he was caught unawares by the letter and the suspension. Reached Wednesday by telephone at his Atlanta home, Mitchell said he plans to fight the dismissal at a May 25 hearing before Audrey Horne, commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources, who oversees DFACS, and an administrative law judge.

DHR officials said Horne will have the final say on Mitchell's fate. Mitchell had been planning to retire June 1 with disability benefits.

DHR officials declined to respond to Mitchell's complaints. "This is a pending personnel action and Mr. Mitchell will have an opportunity to answer the charges and present any evidence on his behalf at the hearing," said DHR spokesman Peter Lee.

A state employee for more than 29 years, the past 13 as head of Fulton County DFACS, Mitchell said "a lot of the issues they outlined were almost beyond belief. There was little substance to them."

Mitchell took particular exception to Blount-Clark's charges against him in Terrell's case. She wrote that of the eight complaints of neglect and abuse filed with DFACS, all but one "were severely mismanaged and negligently handled by the assigned staff of Fulton County DFCS."

Records show that while Mitchell's agency was involved with the family, it never went to court to get custody of the child. "What they don't say, and what has not been reported, is that Terrell Peterson was not in our custody for an entire year and a half before he died," Mitchell said Wednesday.

The boy technically was never in state custody. But the records show the child welfare agency encouraged the mother to sign over guardianship of the children to their paternal grandmother.

Terrell was living with his grandmother at the time of his death, Mitchell said, a decision that was made by the courts, not DFACS. Mitchell conceded the caseworker investigating the single abuse complaint "may have erred," but that his office should not be singled out for blame in the boy's death.

"It was a multiple agency failure, which includes the hospital, the police department, the school system and the court system," Mitchell said.

He said the case demonstrates the need for a system where the agencies involved can communicate with one another to keep children such as Terrell from falling through the cracks. But these problems "exist in all 159 counties," Mitchell said. "It's a systemic problem, not just a one-county problem."

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