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

Sister tells horror of boy's abuse
Steve Visser - Staff
Thursday, December 12, 2002

In a halting but strong voice, 16-year-old Tasha Peterson told a Fulton County jury Wednesday about her brother Terrell, how he lived and how he died at age 5.

Her brother lived tied to a bannister on a diet of oatmeal and water, Tasha said, while the rest of the family ate meat and vegetables, and her aunt fed the boy human waste.

The aunt, Terri Lynn Peterson, is on trial in Superior Court, accused of murder in the death of Terrell Peterson, the boy who became the poster child for the failings of the state Department of Family and Children Services after he was taken to Hughes Spalding hospital in cardiac arrest Jan. 15, 1998.

Doctors and neighbors had warned DFCS about the abuse, but social workers either ignored the warnings or were too busy to check on Terrell, according to two state investigations.

Terri Peterson's lawyer, Gary Washington, told jurors the blame rests with the grandmother, Pharina Peterson, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in February, and DFCS for ignoring reports of abuse.

Terrell was tortured and starved because Terri Peterson and her mother resented raising him, prosecutor David Cooke told jurors the first day of trial. He said they suspected Terrell wasn't blood kin.

Social workers placed Tasha and her brothers Tommy and Terrell --- whose mother was a crack addict --- in Terri Peterson's house. At that time, it was believed that all three children were fathered by Terri Peterson's brother, also a crack addict. The women later suspected --- correctly as it turned out --- that Terrell was another man's child.

In gentle questioning, Cooke asked Tasha about Terrell's life. Tasha, who has been adopted by a foster parent, said her aunt tied Terrell every day, usually naked or in underwear, to the staircase bannister. Terrell would sleep standing up if he was tied or lying on a comforter on the hall floor, she said.

Terri Peterson would hit Terrell either with her open hand or an extension cord, Tasha said. She said "Auntie" ran the household.

Cooke asked about a rule against flushing the toilet. "Because that's where he was suppose to eat, I guess," Tasha said of Terrell. "Were they making him eat feces?" Cooke asked. "Yes," Tasha said. Tasha said Terri Peterson smacked Terrell on the head when he balked at eating the waste. "She would make him pick it up and eat it," said Tasha.

Otherwise, Terrell ate oatmeal, barley and water. Once on Terrell's birthday, the family had a cake for him, Tasha said. "We all ate some," she said. "All of us except for Terrell. She [the aunt] did not want him to have any."

The boy survived by getting two solid meals each weekday from the Head Start program, according to other testimony, but the grandmother pulled him out of the program after Terrell --- on Nov. 28, 1996 --- told a doctor she beat him with two belts and a shoe. During a visit, his mother had found him covered with bruises and taken him to the hospital.

Dr. Mary Sawyer, who saw Terrell that day, testified Wednesday about the bruises --- both old and fresh, and scars she found on Terrell's body. Terrell blamed his grandmother for the abuse, Sawyer said.

In December 1996, Terrell was back in the hospital, this time with a third-degree burn on the heel of his foot. Pharina Peterson told doctors Terrell burned himself on a heating grate, an explanation doctors didn't accept. The grandmother took him to the hospital after the wound became infected and doctors grafted some skin from Terrell's hip.

Tasha said both her aunt and her grandmother made Terrell stand on the heating grate barefooted. She said her aunt often called Terrell "Rat."

Thirteen months later, his lifeless body was back in the hospital. He weighed 29 pounds.

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