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

Bill calls for state advocate to probe child abuse cases
Ron Martz - Staff
Tuesday • February 8

Gov. Roy Barnes on Monday took the first steps toward creating an independent office to monitor how the state handles cases of child abuse or neglect.

His announcement of legislation that would create an oversight office and loosen confidentiality restrictions on certain case files comes in the wake of published reports of 13 children dying after their families had been reported for possible abuse or neglect.

The bill, known as the Georgia Child Advocate Act, would create a child advocate's office and give it authority to investigate and intervene in any case of child abuse or neglect.

It also would apply the state Open Records Act to files of children who have died of abuse or neglect and who were ever the subject of an investigation by the Division of Family and Children Services of the Department of Human Resources.

The governor's initiative drew mixed reviews from advocates for children. Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, called the three-person advocate's office and its $300,000 budget "laughable."

"It's a weak response to a major problem," McDevitt said.

The bill, modeled after similar legislation in Connecticut, is expected to be introduced today by Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta).

Barnes raised the issue of creating a child advocate's office last month after a series of stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented shortcomings in Georgia's child protective services system.

The governor ordered the GBI to investigate the cases of the 13 children who died after their families were reported for possible abuse or neglect.

The state Legislature also has begun moving to provide Georgia's abused and neglected children with more protection. On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved and sent to the floor a measure that would give doctors the authority to take temporary protective custody of children they suspect have been abused or neglected.

Known as the "Terrell Peterson Act," the bill would give doctors 24 hours to evaluate and treat youngsters they take into their custody before notifying the Juvenile Court.

The bill is named for a 5-year-old Atlanta boy who died in January 1998 after eight reports were filed alleging he and his siblings were being abused or neglected.

Terrell's grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his slaying.

Sen. Rene Kemp (D-Hinesville), Judiciary chairman, said he wished "this bill went further than it does" in addressing the issue, such as revamping the whole DFACS system.

In detailing the child advocate bill, Barnes said he would select the advocate and that the office would operate independently from DHR.

The GBI will investigate cases involving suspected criminal misconduct, but the advocate, Barnes said, will investigate "both specific acts and general policies that affect the well-being of Georgia children."

Juanita Blount-Clark, head of DFACS, said she welcomed the oversight while the agency looks for solutions. "In the short term, it's critical to have as many eyes on these children and their welfare as we can," she said.

Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, offered this reaction: "If it will cut down on the number of children dying, it will be good. If the system worked, we wouldn't need an advocacy office. But the system isn't working and that's why we need an independent body."

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