Keeping tabs on flawed system

Terrell Peterson and Jonathan Sturdy remind us of our failures.

Maybe that’s why so many people don’t want their stories told.

Both suffered lives no child should endure only to die violently and anonymously. In both cases, welfare workers knew the mortal perils each boy faced at home.

In 1998, doctors examined Terrell’s frail 5-year-old body, noting it was starved, battered, bruised and scarred. It wasn’t easy to tell, but the final, fatal insult was probably a blow to his head. After his story gained public attention years later, Terrell’s aunt and grandmother were sentenced to life for mistreating and killing him.

In 2012, searchers found Jonathan’s 2-year-old body face down in the chilly water of a drainage canal. He was already dead when his body was dumped. The authorities haven’t charged anyone yet, but they suggest he could have been saved had he been removed from his troubled home.

Neither death caused much of a stir at first. In Georgia, it seems the death of a child like Terrell and Jonathan elicits little response.

Stories such as theirs lay hidden because bureaucrats and politicians believe privacy when children die trumps the public’s understanding of what killed them.

The only way we know what happened to Terrell and Jonathan is the amazing work of two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters.

Jane O. Hansen spent a year fighting for hundreds of records that led to her series “Georgia’s Forgotten Children.” Her reporting showed that between 1993 and 1998, 844 children died in Georgia after coming to the attention of child welfare workers.

Jane’s amazing series prompted stunning change and moved then-Gov. Roy Barnes to order the GBI to seize records of 13 suspicious child deaths from the Department of Family and Children Services.

Her work also led to the creation of the Office of Child Advocate and the relaxation of state laws that kept records beyond reach.

Time has eroded both passion and reforms.

About a year ago, DFCS reported for the first time the number of children who died despite contact with agency’s workers.

The report captivated Alan Judd, a newbie reporter in Jane’s day.

Like Jane, Alan battled the forces that work to hide the records surrounding the deaths of children. The state long has defended the confidentiality of the records of dead children as a privacy matter.

Yet, secrecy affords a more practical purpose; it shields the system when it makes serious or deadly mistakes.

Our newspaper long has argued that the public has a right to know whether those charged with protecting children did their jobs and whether they’re being held accountable. Besides, when children die, violating their privacy is no longer an issue. Protecting siblings and preventing more deaths ought to be the priorities.

And maybe if we all knew more about the short and brutal lives of these children, we would work to prevent additional deaths.

Judd was particularly interested in the agency’s “diversion” program, which drastically reduced the foster care rolls by allowing DFCS to close many cases without full investigations. He wondered whether this change had caused an increase in deaths.

“We still don’t know the answer,” Alan told me, “because we could not get access to full case files. But it became obvious pretty quickly that Georgia is a very dangerous place to be a child.”

Forbidden from seeing the records himself, Alan spent weeks gathering case summaries, which were redacted to the point of being nearly useless. Even so, the records provided Alan two key details – the date and county of death.

He checked those against a list of all autopsies performed by the state medical examiner during the same period and to a state database of death certificates. He then obtained police reports and autopsies and anything else that was available. Alan eventually identified nearly all the children. He also learned their stories.

“Like all of us in this business, I’ve come across my share of depravity, but the ways people kill their children, or the things they allow to happen to their children, are beyond shocking,” said Alan, a father of two. “There were many days I just wanted to go home and hug my own children.”

His reporting produced an awful but familiar finding: Dozens of children die each year despite the intervention of state workers. In 2012, Alan reported, state workers failed to recognize or act on signs that foretold the deaths of at least 25 children.

Jane left the newspaper in 2007. She felt conflicted as she read Alan’s story last Sunday.

“On the one hand, I was elated that someone was looking at this again, and Alan did a good job,” she said. “On the other hand, I was enormously depressed and angry, though not at all surprised.

She still believes that shrouding these cases in secrecy does more to harm than good to children. She believes that if journalists give up the fight, no one else will take it on.

“The result will be an erosion of the reforms designed to protect children because there will be no sunlight shining on them,” she said. “As everyone knows, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

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