(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: 1.11.2000]

Suit wants feds to take over DFACS
'Heads do need to roll' in boy's death, attorney says

By Bill Torpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

The brutal slaying of a 5-year-old child has prompted a new lawsuit that calls for the federal takeover of Georgia's child protection agency.

In filing the suit, Atlanta attorney Don Keenan said today the state Division of Family and Children Services is "one of the most dysfunctional welfare systems in the country."

Keenan, who already has filed a lawsuit in Fulton County State Court in behalf of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson, said the Division of Family and Children Services had done nothing to correct the problems that contributed to Terrell's death. The child died Jan. 16, 1998, after numerous reports were made to the Fulton County DFACS alleging that Terrell or his siblings were being abused or neglected.

Terrell's grandmother and aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged with murder in his death. A judge last week ruled that critical evidence in the case of the grandmother had been collected illegally and could not be used at trial.

After publicity on the case, Gov. Roy Barnes announced he would seek legislation to create an ombudsman office to ensure the state is adequately protecting abused and neglected children.

But Keenan called the governor's proposal a "vanilla bill" that lacks the legal authority necessary to subpoena witnesses or prosecute people.

He said that under the governor's plan, the office would be "created by, monitored by and report to the very entity that DFACS was created by, is monitored by and reports to."

"I think the leaders are just scrambling for something to throw up there," Keenan said.

Howard Mead, spokesman for the governor, said an ombudsman would have full access to the agency's records and would be compelled to find out about wrongdoing in child protection.

"If that was my sole job to find these things, then I'd better do that before anyone else does," Mead said.

In addition to calling for the federal takeover of Georgia's child welfare agency, the lawsuit names 11 officials, including the caseworker who failed to bring Terrell to an abuse hearing against Pharina Peterson, his grandmother. Those names were originally excluded from the state lawsuit.

"The first time [in the State Court suit], I said that I'm not naming names nor am I asking for firings," said Keenan. "But it's been 60 days, nothing has been done. These people are still working for the government. No heads have rolled. Heads do need to roll because it sets a terrible example for the people below them."

In the suit he says that 21 state employees "were assigned to protect Terrell over the course of his life" but they "through deliberate indifference... created a zone of danger for Terrell which rendered him more vulnerable to abuse and eventually, death."

Keenan also is asking the judge to impanel a task force to oversee the agency. This group would include a retired Juvenile Court judge, a former foster child, the uncle of a girl who was injured in foster care and other advocates. Keenan said these people have "been in the trenches." He ridiculed a 15-member panel, which was recently set up by the state to make recommendations, as being headed by an IBM public relations director.

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