Originally created 02/08/00

Barnes presents child advocate legislation



ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes unveiled legislation Monday to create an independent office to act as a watchdog over Georgia's child protection agency, wracked in recent months by reports of deaths of children under its supervision.

The bill stems from the case of 5-year-old Terrell Peterson of Atlanta, who died of abuse and neglect last year despite eight reports of his plight to the Division for Family and Children Services. Then last month, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation seized records of 13 other cases from DFACS offices in six counties.

"Child abuse is always tragic, and it's even more so when it could have been prevented," Mr. Barnes said in outlining the bill. "When the Division of Family and Children Services fails an abused child -- and I hate to admit it, but it too often has done that -- catastrophe compounds tragedy. We can never tolerate that."

Mr. Barnes' budget request for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes $300,000 for a three-person Office of Child Advocate under the governor that would provide oversight of DFACS. It would have the authority to investigate and intervene in cases at will, with access to any public or private child-care facility where there has been a report of abuse.

While no one argues with the legislation's intent -- saving children's lives -- the measure drew criticism Monday for its approach to the issue.

State Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, questioned the wisdom of creating another government office to keep an eye on an agency already subject to state oversight.

"We continue to add levels of bureaucracy rather than fixing the underlying problems," he said.

Mr. Barnes has put a new director in charge of DFACS. A task force named by state Department of Human Resources Commissioner Audrey Horne is looking at what procedural changes might be needed at the agency.

On the other hand, the president of an Atlanta-based child advocacy organization said the office isn't getting enough money or staffing to do the job the governor is giving it.

"I really think this effort is way, way too weak a response," said Rick McDevitt of the Georgia Alliance for Children.

Besides creating the child advocate office, the bill would give the public access through the Georgia Open Records Act to the records of any child who has died from abuse or neglect after being referred to DFACS.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.