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

Journal: Revenge no answer
Allowing state agency to be sued for Terrell Peterson's death could have left children in similar situations at greater risk.
Friday, August 24, 2001

TRAGEDY IS TOO gentle a word to describe the life, and brutal death, of Terrell Peterson: abused for most of his brief five years in this world, rescued once or twice from his agonies by government officials, disastrously returned to his tormentors, finding peace only in the realm beyond the grave.

It is no wonder that so many people, shocked, angered and mobilized by his story, have worked tirelessly to repair a child protection system in which such horrors could not only exist, but also persist. It is no wonder that many are still not assured that all the necessary fixes have been made.

It is also no wonder that a few, zealous in their pursuit of answers and guarantees, want even more --- in the form of punishment, maybe even revenge. In this, however, we believe Terrell's defenders are going too far.

This week a federal judge ruled, for the second time, that the state Department of Human Resources cannot be sued for failing in its responsibility to protect him from harm. U.S. District Judge Jack T. Camp rejected a claim from a lawyer for the boy's mother.

Drawing on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the judge said the state did not have permanent custody or guardianship over Terrell, and thus could not be held liable for what happened to him at the hands of others.

This is not a happy ruling --- nothing in this case could produce anything but degrees of misery --- but it is the correct one, and not only because of the narrow definitions of custody on which it turned.

We have nothing good to say about the judgment of the Fulton County and state child welfare workers and officials who saw evidence of abuse --- several times --- and yet never took action to pull Terrell out of harm's way. With the benefit of hindsight, anyone can see that he should have been taken from his home long before the awful end.

And, with the benefit of hindsight, officials have taken serious steps. Heads have rolled, procedures have been changed, missions have been refined and workers have been given a clearer charge to meet their most important goal: to protect children, no matter what.

Is it enough? Probably not. But is suing the agency and the people who run it going to help? Certainly not. If anything, it could leave children in similar situations at greater risk.

Expecting social workers and state welfare officials --- or anyone else --- to wrestle with the terrifyingly complex issues of possibly abusive home situations without ever making a mistake, on pain of punishment by a court, is absurd. It assumes an omniscience, even clairvoyance, on the part of overworked and underpaid civil servants that no one has. Telling them they will face court suits if they ever guess wrongly is pretty much the same as telling them that, if they have any sense, they'd better get into another line of work.

Complicating their efforts to be more strict and to act more quickly and decisively, which we believe the agencies' people want to do, are the mixed signals that the public gives them.

This year, burned by the criticism of being too casual in Terrell Peterson's case, officials tried to be more forceful and "proactive" when accusations surfaced about possible abuse among families belonging to a small Atlanta church called the House of Prayer. Rather than enjoying praise for their diligence, however, the agencies were pilloried for interfering with parental rights and religious beliefs.

Whether their decisions were right in that case, or premature, the ultimate message to them is a simple one: You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

There are many more things to be done to improve child protection systems in Georgia, to ensure that they get the right answer as often as humanly possible. But suing them isn't one of them.

It won't bring Terrell back to life, of course. What's worse, it won't help officials resolve the awful conflict they face between society's devotion to the sanctity of the family and its urge to save those children trapped in families that are more hellish than sacred.

The desire for revenge or redress is understandable. In this case, though, it is just wrong.

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