Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
GEORGIA'S CHILDREN: Give system all it needs to save kids
Like Terrell Peterson, my mother was unable to care for me because of a substance abuse problem. Like Terrell, I was in great danger as a small child.
Unlike Terrell, I survived.
While I was being "cared for" in Texas foster homes, I suffered many beatings. My memories are unclear, but my injuries are not. Before the age of 5, I suffered multiple head and body injuries, including the loss of my right eye and partial hearing loss in my right ear.
I remember entertaining thoughts of suicide while I was very young. Cars would pass by my house, and I had to squelch the impulse to throw myself in front of them. Over the years, I have had 22 operations to fix the physical injuries caused by those early days.
At some point, I was put in a safe and stable environment, and efforts were made on a national scale to find an adoptive family. I was adopted at age 6 by a couple in North Dakota who drove down to Texas to meet me and pick me up. They saved me. And there were others who invested in me along the way.
Twenty-one years after my adoption, I am an accomplished young man. I was rehabilitated by the love of so many who reached out and gave me reason to live, dream and to love again.
It is because of unselfish acts by loving adoptive parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, counselors, mentors and friends that I received a foundation to begin my healing process for both my physical scars and my memories. I wish Terrell could have experienced the love that I have been given.
As I read Terrell's story, I thought "that could have been me." I could have died.
What made the difference between my case and his? A caseworker. She saw me as a child and immediately recognized that I was in trouble. She took steps to first protect me and then later to get me a permanent home.
She did not need to consult a book of detailed policies and procedures or confer with a group of people. She was simply an intelligent, caring professional with enough experience that she could size up a situation and then make decisions in my best interest.
The system can work. It can protect children. I am living proof. It will take an investment in the people on the front lines who work with children. And not just the Department of Family and Children Services --- every part of the system needs strong, quality people --- from juvenile court, to mental health to public health.
And what does it take to get and keep quality people? One prerequisite is paying market-value salaries, which is not the current $22,000 per year.
Another is ensuring that workers' caseloads are manageable. The Child Welfare League of America recommends a maximum of 17 cases per child protective services caseworker and 15 cases per caseworker for preventive services and foster care. Otherwise, we will have a chance situation like mine, which is unacceptable.
Children in the foster care system are completely helpless, so we adults must make sure that they are protected.
Please, Georgia, do more to recruit more qualified and compassionate caseworkers, and other staff who work with children. Please, legislators and Gov. Roy Barnes, give the system the budget, resources and technology tools to make all children safe.
I am a survivor, but only by chance. Please do not allow Georgia to have a child protection system that rolls the dice.
Shawn Huff of Atlanta is an account manager at United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. He can be reached at
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