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

Journal: System, not caseworkers, at fault in children's deaths
Friday, May 19, 2000

WE THINK Gov. Roy Barnes was right to order an intensive investigation into the records of 13 children who died while under what should have been the protective umbrella of the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Journal staff writer Jane Hansen had reported a troubling trend --- some 800 children who ended up dead over a six-year period, even though their cases of abuse had been reported to DFACS. In the case of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, suspicion of criminal neglect on the part of the Fulton County DFACS office also triggered the GBI investigation.

But we weren't particularly surprised when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported this week that bad decision-making and sloppy procedures, not criminal negligence, were responsible for the deaths of many of these children.

We have never believed that intentional neglect of children or the falsification of records was the reason hundreds of children under DFACS supervision have died over the past six years. The system itself is faulty: It simply does a poor job of keeping track of abused and neglected kids. That's a "crime" in a larger societal sense, but it's not a statutory offense that demands locking up individual caseworkers.

The more generalized crime here is incompetence, and a failure to ratchet up a system with funding and manpower to cope with the huge numbers of children being neglected in fragmented families.

The GBI recommends changes we've advocated, such as more training, higher salaries and lower caseloads for caseworkers, and a computerized database to keep track of the status and location of abusive families. The agency also suggested more funding for foster homes and for medically fragile babies, and background checks on those who become substitute parents.

There is little point, we think, in trying to make caseworkers the sole scapegoats for the widespread problems facing DFACS. Better to fix the whole system while imposing strict guidelines for caseworkers handling neglected children and strict disciplinary actions when they fail to follow those guidelines.

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