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

Ex-prosecutor named state's child advocate
Governor's surprise pick comes under fire from an activist suing DFACS over Terrell Peterson case.
Ron Martz - Staff
Friday, September 15, 2000

DeAlvah "Dee" Simms, a former Bibb County prosecutor who focused on crimes against children, was named Thursday as Georgia's first child advocate.

In making the selection, Gov. Roy Barnes bypassed former state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), a high-profile voice on children's issues in the state over the past two decades.

Simms' office will investigate complaints brought on behalf of children under the care of the Division of Family and Children Services and Child Protective Services and try to find solutions.

Barnes said he chose Simms, 38, over the more well-known Oliver and three other candidates because her "unique combination of experience --- as an educator, as a prosecutor, as an advocate and as a mother --- made her, in my mind, the ideal candidate for this position."

Simms said she has been interested in the job since legislators first began discussing more than two years ago the possibility of creating an advocate's office to oversee how the state protects children at risk from abuse or neglect.

"We will now have a place where people can turn when they have complaints," Simms said.

Simms, who will serve a three-year term and be paid $65,000 to $75,000, will also be able to ask the governor to take legal action through the attorney general's office.

Simms said she plans to open the office Oct. 2 but said it will be two or three months before it will be fully operational with a staff and toll-free number to record complaints and problems. She said she'll use those complaints to track child abuse issues and problems across the state, looking not only at individual cases, but at the larger picture of what needs to be done to improve the system.

Despite increasing criticism of state DFACS failures over the past year from legislators and private advocacy groups, Simms did not say the system is irreparable. "I think we've got problems we need to address," she said. But she said the state has the necessary laws in place to protect children.

DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, a member of the selection committee what chose the five finalists for the post, said he was pleased by Barnes' decision. "She certainly has a history of being a very strong advocate for children both in the courtroom and in the private section," Morgan said. "She's very competent to do this job. But it's going to be very difficult for whoever the governor picked," he added.

Oliver said she was disappointed that she did not get the job "but I wish Ms. Simms well."

Atlanta lawyer Don Keenan blasted Barnes' choice. Keenan backed Oliver for the job and offered in a letter to Barnes to drop his request to have DFACS placed in federal receivership until it is overhauled. He said he even offered to withdraw as attorney of record in a lawsuit he has filed against the state in the death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson if Barnes picked Oliver.

"If the governor is serious about appointing a child advocate, why reject the most experienced, passionate, clear No. 1 choice on everybody's card with an unknown with no track record? The only answer is the governor is not serious about this horrible problem that keeps coming up every single day," Keenan added.

Barnes said Keenan's offer was not a factor in his decision.

Maj. Robert Allen, chief of detectives in the Macon Police Department, praised Simms for her tenacity on cases involving crimes against children. "This job was not an assignment to her. It was a calling," Allen said.

Sandra Wood, executive director of the Georgia Council on Child Abuse, said she was not familiar with Simms. Wood applauded the governor's decision to create the office but questioned whether the resources will be available to make it truly effective. The office has a first-year budget of $300,000.

The child advocate's office, Wood said, "is going to have tremendous challenges because there are high expectations for it."


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