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

Lawsuit against DFACS rejected
Judge gives lawyer 20 days to bolster claim abused boy was in state custody when he died.
Ron Martz - Staff
Thursday, October 5, 2000

A lawyer representing a 5-year-old boy who died after a lifetime of abuse and neglect said Wednesday that, despite a judge's dismissal of the case, he will continue pressing a lawsuit claiming the state failed to protect the child.

U.S. District Judge Jack Camp dismissed the suit Friday but gave Atlanta lawyer Don Keenan 20 days to amend it with additional information. Camp wrote that he dismissed a key portion of the suit because it did not clearly show whether the state actually had custody of Terrell Peterson and was responsible for his safekeeping at the time of his death in January 1998.

"Without more factual detail establishing the basis of the State's alleged duty to protect Terrell, this Court cannot determine that the State's agents violated Terrell's substantive due process rights," the order reads.

Eight reports of neglect or abuse had been filed with the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services on Terrell and his siblings before his death. Terrell's grandmother, aunt and the aunt's boyfriend have been charged in his death, although key evidence in the case has been ruled inadmissable by a Fulton County Superior Court judge. That ruling is on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The state claimed in its motion to dismiss that Terrell was not in its custody and it had no responsibility for his well-being.

But Keenan said Wednesday he plans to amend the suit by the end of the week with information showing that Fulton DFACS had taken custody of the boy and put him with his grandmother.

"I am absolutely confident when all the facts are laid down, we're in (court)," Keenan said.

Officials of the Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFACS, declined to comment on the dismissal, citing a suit pending in Fulton County State Court seeking sweeping reforms to the child welfare system. That suit was also filed by Keenan.

George Shingler, attorney for former DHR Commissioner Tommy Olmstead, one of 13 defendants, said the ruling vindicates his client.

"But I don't think any of the defendants view this as raising systemwide issues that would make this a vindication of the system. This is just one tragic case," Shingler said.

Keenan filed the federal lawsuit last November for unspecified monetary damages in an effort to bring sweeping reforms to Georgia's child welfare system. One of the changes sought by Keenan was an ombudsman who would serve as a watchdog on the child welfare system.

Earlier this year the General Assembly passed several reform bills, including one that creates the Office of Child Advocate. But Keenan has harshly criticized the law, saying the advocate lacks independence and the ability to file suit against state agencies. Another new law bears Terrell's name and allows doctors the right to take temporary custody of a child they believe is in imminent danger of abuse or neglect.

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