Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Barnes says state failed Terrell, urges child advocate
Gov. Roy Barnes on Thursday squarely laid the responsibility for 5-year-old Terrell Peterson's death on the state.
"The state did not carry out its responsibility to Terrell Peterson," Barnes said in a speech to members of the Georgia Press Association.
Barnes cited the 1998 death of the Atlanta boy as one reason he wants to create an Office of Child Advocate to serve as a watchdog over the Department of Family and Children Services. Barnes said that despite repeated reports to DFACS that Peterson and his siblings were being abused and neglected, the reports "were not properly handled by the state."
Legislation creating the child advocate office was introduced late Wednesday. House Bill 1422 would give Barnes power to name the advocate, who would report directly to him. It also would open for public inspection certain case files of children who die after having been the subject of a report or complaint to DFACS.
Last month, the GBI seized case files of 13 dead children from six DFACS offices and one hospital in an investigation that is expected to expand in scope.
The governor's remarks Thursday were the strongest yet by a state official about the government's role in Terrell's death. Last month, Audrey Horne, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFACS, said, "I think we failed this child."
Barnes also cited the court system and a hospital for failing the 5-year-old boy, who weighed only 29 pounds when he died. His grandmother and aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death.
The circumstances surrounding Terrell's death came to light only after a protracted legal battle between the state and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over access to his records and those of hundreds of other children who died after reports of possible abuse or neglect.
"It shouldn't take a court order to review these records. If we want public
scrutiny to help us improve child protective services, we need to make sure the public has access to these records," Barnes said.
The bill allows for public access to records of any child who dies while in the custody of a state department or agency or foster parent "or was the subject of an investigation, report, referral, or complaint" to the state.
Barnes said federal law prohibits case files of abused and neglected children who are alive from being opened to the public. But the bill would allow the state child advocate access to those records.
Some state lawmakers and children's advocates are concerned about the proposed new advocate's office not being independent. Original language in the bill calls for Barnes to appoint the advocate, who "shall serve at the pleasure of the governor."
But Barnes said Thursday that after talking with Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), chairman of the House Children and Youth Committee, he will appoint a commission to recommend candidates for the job.
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