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

Editorials: Secrecy hurts children; Bungling bureaucrats shielded in severe abuse cases.
Tuesday • October 19

A chilling profile in Sunday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution outlined the short life and brutal death of little Terrell Peterson. The child died last year in what a prosecutor called "one of the most horrific cases of child abuse ever seen in Fulton County."

As recounted by reporter Jane O. Hansen, 5-year-old Terrell's tragic tale is also an horrific account of bureaucratic blunders that were kept from the public. While confidentiality statutes are supposed to protect the privacy of abuse victims, they can also shield a child protection system that fumbled badly and lied about it. That's what happened in Terrell's case.

Georgians ought to know about Terrell's torture and death so they get angry enough to demand accountability from child welfare agencies.

Terrell was regularly starved and beaten. At his death at the hands of caregivers --- his grandmother, his aunt and her boyfriend have been charged - -- he weighed 29 pounds. That's the size of many 2-year-olds.

This was a child stomped out of existence after five years. And even while he lived, his life never gained the fullness of reality. It is no accident that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's account contains no photographs of him. Apparently, no one cared enough about him to take a snapshot of a boy described as full of laughter and curiosity.

The newspaper tracked down only two pictures of Terrell. One was an investigatory child abuse photo taken after Terrell's mother brought him to the hospital covered with bruises in 1996. The other was the autopsy photo of his dead body.

The newspaper could not obtain the hospital shot and never considered the autopsy photo. It would be too upsetting for people to view over coffee and bagels. But, maybe, people ought to see it to understand what can happen when a child slips through the cracks.

The cracks constituted a chasm in Terrell's case. The Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services flubbed its investigations into seven complaints that Terrell and his two siblings were being abused. Hospital staff failed to alert protective services when Terrell arrived with third-degree burns. A judge dismissed charges against Terrell's grandmother a year before he died because no one brought the boy to court.

After Terrell's death, Fulton DFACS head Ralph Mitchell issued an official comment. Yes, Terrell's death was tragic, the statement in the newspaper declared, but the agency had followed procedure. A day later, Mitchell admitted to a state official that the statement was wrong, adding, " Fortunately, there have been no further calls from the media to follow up or contest the information."

It's impossible for the media to challenge misinformation from child protection agencies because of confidentiality laws. It took a court order for the Journal-Constitution to obtain records of Terrell's death and those of 700 other children who died between 1993 and 1998 while supposedly under the protection of the child welfare system.

In the southwest Georgia cemetery where he was hastily buried, Terrell has few visitors, as invisible in death as he was in life. But if his story leads an angry public to demand changes from child welfare agencies, his death will not have been in vain.

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