(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
GBI seizes welfare agency's files in probe of 13 children's deaths
Signaling a criminal investigation is under way, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday seized state files of 13 children who died after their families had been reported for abuse or neglect. In a coordinated sweep across the state, agents made surprise appearances at child welfare offices in six counties.
Gov. Roy Barnes said Tuesday he had ordered GBI Director Milton Nix to oversee an investigation into children's deaths that is expected to expand beyond the 13 so far identified as suspicious. He said he became concerned after articles last year in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution chronicled the deaths of children already known to county departments of Family and Children Services. The articles were based on hundreds of child abuse records opened to the newspaper by court order.
"After those series of articles, we began to review files --- including myself and others in the governor's office," Barnes said. "This action is a culmination of that review because we think there's a possibility there may be criminal activity involved."
The governor also announced in his state of the budget address Tuesday that he is seeking $4.1 million to fund a child advocacy office that would oversee and investigate the operations of DFACS.
Barnes refused to comment further on the criminal investigation. But officials say some DFACS staff may have broken the law by making false statements in the records, which would be a felony. Agents will also investigate whether some deaths should have been prosecuted as murders. Seven of the 13 deaths were ruled homicides, and criminal charges were filed in six of them.
The GBI sweep culminates more than two months of escalating criticism over the handling of abuse and neglect complaints. Public concern heightened last October when the Journal-Constitution published an article about the brutal death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson. Since then, the state has been sued twice, a national news magazine has profiled the state's shoddy handling of Terrell's case, and hundreds of citizens have called or written to demand reform.
The second lawsuit, filed Tuesday, calls for a federal takeover of the state's child welfare system.
GBI agents descended Tuesday afternoon unannounced at DFACS offices in Glynn, Fulton, Cherokee, Bibb, Sumter and Clarke counties. They also visited the office of Peg Peters, former head of the state Division of Family and Children Services, who was reassigned to another job in late October.
Officials said DFACS workers were kept in the dark about the GBI action to ensure that no one destroyed the files. Only news media were alerted as agents showed up to collect the records of the dead children.
When agents arrived at the Fulton County DFACS office at 230 Peachtree St. N.W., five television cameras and as many reporters were waiting for them.
One child whose records were seized was Terrell, who died in January 1998 after eight reports had been made to the Fulton DFACS alleging that he or his siblings were being neglected or abused. Terrell's grandmother, aunt and aunt's boyfriend have been charged in the little boy's slaying, and the two women are facing the death penalty.
Following the child's death, two state reviews of the case found numerous violations of policy that may have contributed to his death. Despite those reports, Ralph Mitchell, the Fulton DFACS administrator, issued a press release saying all policies and procedures had been followed. He later wrote to Peters, the state agency head, saying he'd made a mistake, but "fortunately there have been no further calls from the media to follow up or contest the information contained in the statement."
Neither official corrected the public record. Since then, Peters has been reassigned and Mitchell has been on an extended medical leave.
In November, lawyer Don Keenan filed a lawsuit in state court, charging the state with contributing to Terrell's death through its negligence and covering up the death. Tuesday, he filed a second lawsuit in federal court, this time calling for a federal judge to take control of the state DFACS.
Keenan said he was pleased the governor had ordered the investigation. He said he recently told the governor's office and attorney general's office that he would press for criminal investigations.
Last Tuesday, both Keenan and Barnes were featured in another story about Terrell on the CBS News program "60 Minutes II."
After the national broadcast, Keenan said he has received more than 700 e-mail messages, letters and phone calls from people demanding that public officials be held accountable for the death. He said he forwarded them all to the governor's office.
Officials said that continuing publicity on Terrell's case, as well as articles about other children whose records were released by court order, sparked a public outrage and moved both Barnes and the GBI's Nix last November to begin discussing what the state should do in response.
In a press conference in late November, Barnes announced the appointment of a new head of the state Division of Families and Children Services, Juanita Blount-Clark, and his support for an ombudsman's office to oversee the agency.
Behind the scenes, he asked recently appointed Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne, whose department includes the state division, to begin internally reviewing the agency's records of deceased children.
Within the last month, Horne sent the most questionable or egregious cases to the governor's office. Barnes said he himself read through some of the records. As a lawyer, the governor said he believed the records raise questions of criminal actions, and he called in the GBI to begin an investigation of the first 13.
Last week, Nix convened a task force of 10 to 15 agents to examine the records in search of possible violations of state law, which makes it a felony to make false statements on official papers. The maximum punishment is five years in prison.
GBI spokesman John Bankhead said agents began examining some records shortly after the Journal-Constitution's articles appeared.
The GBI task force is made up largely of agents specially trained in child abuse investigations. These agents take annual training in that area, and one is assigned to each of the agency's 15 regional offices. Agents on the task force, Bankhead said, were drawn from regions near Atlanta.
Also on the task force are Dr. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, and the agency's criminal profiling specialists. Among the records being collected in addition to DFACS records are autopsy reports, hospital records and police reports.
Bankhead said DFACS workers in some of the offices were so cooperative they called agents to report they had found more documents pertaining to the cases.
At a press conference Tuesday, lawyer Keenan said he was asking the federal court to appoint a single overseer or a small panel to run DFACS until it is reformed to the satisfaction of the court.
Keenan repeatedly emphasized that the lack of state action, including the failure to fire officials involved in Terrell's case, was typical for the agency.
"If for no other reason, to protect the integrity of the agency, these people have got to go --- today," Keenan said.
Staff writers Bill Torpy, Jack Warner, Ann Hardie, Plott Brice, Chris Reinolds and Andrea Jones contributed to this article.
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