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

Hopes high for child protection reforms
Another try: Legislators, child advocates say new laws will have more teeth than previous efforts.
Ron Martz - Staff
Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Ten years ago, outraged Georgia lawmakers passed a series of measures they believed would cure many of the more serious ills in the state's overwhelmed and understaffed child protective services system.

Their ire and the desire to reform the state Division of Family and Children Services were prompted by a series of stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that cited how poorly Georgia protected abused and neglected children.

The 1990 laws authorized a statewide computerized registry to track abusive parents and guardians, called for child fatality review teams in each county and relaxed confidentiality statutes relating to records of children who died while in child custody.

A decade later, lawmakers instrumental in passing those reforms admit they've had little impact. The child abuse registry was started but halted after a state Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to it and never resumed, even though other states have such registries. Some counties created fatality review teams; others simply ignored the law. And the less restrictive confidentiality laws were undermined by other legislation.

Given that record, some critics are wondering whether the reform measures passed by this year's General Assembly will suffer the same fate.

This session the General Assembly approved bills that create the office of child advocate to oversee DFACS, give doctors the authority to take temporary custody of children they believe are in imminent danger from abuse or neglect, broaden the powers of the state head of DFACS and the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources and set up the framework of a statewide juvenile court system.

This year's laws were again prompted by a series of stories in the Journal-Constitution, this time uncovering details of the deaths of hundreds of children who were known to the state because of reports of abuse or neglect by their families.

"These things go away very quickly until there's another tragedy," said Sandra Wood, executive director of the Georgia Council on Child Abuse. "It will take a grass roots effort by child advocates and the public to keep asking questions about how these laws are being implemented."

Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), one of the legislators who pushed for reform 10 years ago and have continued to press the issue, does not believe that will happen this time. The new laws, coupled with recommendations from an independent task force looking at ways to improve the child protective services system, due April 20, should provide a solid foundation on which effective safeguards can be built, she said.

"We don't want to look at this 10 years from now and say it hasn't made much difference," said Sinkfield, chairwoman of the House Children and Youth Committee.

Sinkfield said that over the next year she and other legislators will keep a closer watch on the new laws and hold legislative hearings if necessary to monitor implementation.

Already, groups affected by the legislation have begun to address the laws' requirements.

David Cook, general counsel for the Medical Association of Georgia, said doctors will be informed in articles in professional journals and informational mailings of their rights and obligations under the provisions of the Terrell Peterson Bill, the bill giving doctors the authority to take temporary custody of children.

"The bill just passed so we're going to take a look at the final version, and I'm sure we're going to get something out to our members in a few weeks," Cook said.

The state's juvenile judges were advised at seminars last weekend of the new legislation, including the Terrell Peterson Bill and the one that authorizes additional juvenile judges.

Another important yet little-publicized piece of legislation is the one broadening powers of the heads of DFACS and DHR.

When the law goes into effect July 1, they will have the power to fire county DFACS directors and to reject nominees for the posts.

In the past only the governor and county boards had that authority.

The new law requires county DFACS boards to nominate candidates only from a list of qualified candidates that will be provided by the DHR commissioner. That list will be compiled from job applicants who applied through a DHR Web site. In the past the list of candidates was compiled by local boards, which often nominated only one candidate to the county commissioner, according to Rep. Sharon Trense (R-Atlanta).

"For a long time the county DFACS people have said to the state people: 'Keep your hands off us.' That's why we don't have the accountability we need in the system. This clearly defines who's in charge," said Trense, who worked six years to get the bill enacted and this year got the governor's support.

Although the bill also gives DHR the right to fire directors, "there are no plans to review any specific directors at this time, but the law will help us deal with personnel issues when and if they do arise," said Fran Buchanan, spokeswoman for DHR.

This bill also requires county DFACS heads to make detailed annual reports to their local boards, county commissioners, DHR and their state legislative delegation of all children they have served in the previous 12 months and the disposition of their cases.

Buchanan said the agency is already reviewing what information is required by the legislation so that an assessment can be made as to what is available and what will need to be gathered.

Lawmakers also added $250,000 to the existing $525,000 budget of the nonprofit Georgia Network of Children's Advocacy Centers. At the 24 existing centers, experts assess children who have been sexually abused without subjecting them to the trauma of multiple interviews by law enforcement and medical personnel.

Mary Migliaro, interim director of the organization, said it has not been decided how the extra money will be used, but there has been talk of expanding the number of centers, and the added money "will help us do more good things. The movement seems to be exploding in Georgia."

The cornerstone of this year's laws to improve the plight of children is the governor's child advocate bill. But it will also be the most difficult to properly implement and will be watched more closely than any of the other measures. It also has more critics.

Atlanta attorney Don Keenan has filed suit against the state on behalf of Terrell Peterson, the 5-year-old Atlanta boy who died in January 1998 after he and his siblings had been the subjects of at least eight reports to state officials of abuse and neglect. He thinks the law will be ineffective because it does not require the advocate to be a lawyer, places the office in the executive branch instead of the legislature, provides only $300,000 for start up and does not give the advocate the power to sue other state agencies without approval of the governor. Sinkfield admits that whoever becomes the advocate will have to be both aggressive in pushing the agenda of the office and still be able to persuade state agencies to do what is right for children without taking them to court. But, if necessary, she said, the advocate should be willing to try to persuade the governor to pursue court action.

One issue still to be resolved is how quickly the advocate's office will become appointed by the governor after the law takes effect on July 1.

Joselyn Butler, spokeswoman for Barnes, said, "It's something we'll get to quickly, but we haven't set a timeline yet on when we're going to do it."


End of abuse?

Will new laws end abuse like that of five-year-old Terrell Peterson?

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