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

Child Protection Lawsuit Justified
Response to Atlanta Journal's August 24, 2001 Editorial
Mary Margaret Oliver - Special
Friday, September 21, 2001

The Aug. 24 editorial 'Revenge no Answer' applauded a federal district court's dismissal of a lawsuit that sought to hold the state of Georgia accountable for the death of Terrell Peterson.

The editorial wrongly stated the lawsuit sought revenge. Lawyers have not sought monetary damages, but a court order to ensure that the state implement protective procedures for other children like Terrell in the future. Rather than revenge, the lawsuit has sought reform and the enforcement of policies put in place as part of a consent order from a previous federal lawsuit.

The editorial wrongly assumed the lawsuit targeted caseworkers. The suit was not against caseworkers, but against the state of Georgia to force change from state and agency leaders.

Further, the editorial asked "... is suing the agency and the people who run it going to help? Certainly not." Wrong. Lawsuits have helped many states' child welfare systems where political powers have failed. This particular lawsuit has been used as a tool to see to it that underpaid, overworked caseworkers finally get relief.

Why do we need lawsuits? Sometimes the political process does not move fast enough to fix crisis in government. The Department of Human Resources, specifically the Department of Family and Children Services received an increase in resources this past year, but 100 new caseworkers and a small raise are not going to fix all the systemic problems fast enough to save the next Terrell Peterson. Our government is built upon the principle of checks and balances. Our system of shared power relies on the courts to provide a relief valve for systems in crisis. This lawsuit sought to use those checks and balances.

Lawsuits are a valuable tool for democracy. They prod our elected officials to protect the most vulnerable and least politically powerful citizens. In my early law practice, with the help of other advocates, for clients who rarely had access to the court, I filed lawsuits to protect the mentally ill, the elderly, children with disabilities, and citizens seeking their basic right to vote. High-level government officials privately frequently assisted me with lawsuits against government because they knew a certain government practice was wrong and they did not have the political power to change it. They knew when government needed a lawsuit to force change.

I have been privileged to enjoy different kinds of public service. I have spent time, in the open and behind closed doors, in the most traditional political rooms of Georgia politics, and I have stood before judges in both state and federal courts seeking relief for clients. I believe that there is a greater degree of intellectual honesty in court than in the open or in closed political chambers. Therefore, when Terrell Peterson and others like him have their day in court, and successfully present their case proving the state's violation of laws, there is an opportunity for relief that is denied them on days when politicians vote.

In the next few days, Governor Barnes will swear in his fourth Commissioner of Human Resources, Representative Jim Martin, an individual of uncompromising values, integrity, and unmatched intellectual and work ethic standards. But even a perfect human cannot fix a child protective services system that has been weakened by inattention over so many years. There will be times when even the great state of Georgia needs the guiding hand and enforcement authority of the federal judiciary

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