(This is a copy of the original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 11.11.99]

 Suit demands child welfare reforms; Death of 5-year-old prompts legal case

By Jane O. Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

A lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of a child beaten to death could put Georgia on a road that other states' child protection systems have been forced to take.

Last year's death of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson could have been prevented if social workers assigned to his case had done their jobs, the Keenan Law Firm charged in its suit against Georgia's child welfare agency. To try to prevent further deaths of children known to child protective services workers, lawyer Don Keenan is pushing to create an ombudsman office to oversee daily operations of the state Division of Family and Children Services.

"The system has to be changed," Keenan said Wednesday at a news conference. "Terrell has got to be the last little child who dies."

Nationwide, a growing number of child welfare agencies are being sued for failing to protect some of the children under their care. As a result of lawsuits like Keenan's, courts have ordered about 20 child welfare systems to change the way they do business, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights. Her agency has won class-action suits against seven of them, including in Washington, where in 1995 a federal court appointed a receiver to run the child welfare agency.

Keenan said he took the Peterson case without pay in hopes of better protecting abused children under the state's protective watch. Before Terrell was beaten to death, state child welfare workers received eight complaints of alleged abuse and neglect of him or his siblings.

Terrell's grandmother and aunt, as well as the aunt's boyfriend, face trials next year on murder charges. The two women may face the death penalty. But Keenan said that is not enough.

Rather, he said, "when an agency is as out-of-control and as untrustworthy as this is, it's got to be taken over."

State DFACS officials have said they cannot comment because of the litigation. But supporters say the vast majority of child protective services workers are caring people who are underpaid and overworked. Often they labor under difficult circumstances, facing complex family situations, too few resources and unsupportive judges.

Keenan said he hopes through the lawsuit to win the support of Gov. Roy Barnes and the Legislature for a state-funded ombudsman office that would have full subpoena and prosecution powers. The office would act independently as a children's advocate "to make sure that (the child welfare agency) follows the law and protects children," Keenan said.

A bill to create a state ombudsman for the protection of children was introduced this year by Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta), who chairs the House Children and Youth Committee.

If the state refuses to create that advocacy agency, Keenan said he would press the court to hold DFACS in receivership, similar to what some federal judges have done with state prisons deemed unfit.

If the state and court resist, Keenan said he would fight before a jury for the largest settlement possible to fund an independent advocacy group, such as Lowry's, that would hold child welfare systems' feet to the fire.

"Whether it's an ombudsman or a receiver, you need to have someone watching all the time," Lowry said.

Lowry said enforcement of any court order is key. "The question is the degree to which the lawyers are willing to go back time after time to court," she said. "The systems have been bad for a very long time, and turning them around does not happen overnight."

Lawsuits elsewhere have resulted in a variety of reforms, Lowry said. They often require smaller caseloads for child protective workers, more pay and better training. The court order covering the District of Columbia's child protection system covers all operations, she said. New Mexico's is narrower and deals with adoption while Kansas City's focuses on children in foster care.

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