Originally created 09/21/04

Governor faces his own questions on child care



ATLANTA - When he asked the question two years ago - "Why are children still dying in state care?" - Sonny Perdue wasn't governor. Now he is, and the question is being asked again.

Since he has been governor, two toddlers whose family situations were known to child-welfare workers have died after beatings.

State officials are reviewing the case of a 4-year-old who died this month and whose grandmother had told officials she feared for his safety.

In 2002, when Mr. Perdue challenged then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat seeking re-election, the Republican promised to crack down on child abuse.

"It's unacceptable that we would have children dying in state care," Mr. Perdue said, and in a debate he pointedly asked Mr. Barnes why children still were dying in state care.

Mr. Barnes said the state must do better and would, but he also declared: "Out of 20,000 children, you're going to have children that die every day."

After the debate, he hastened to say that he misspoke and that no child in state custody should die. But Mr. Perdue's staff rushed out a TV ad using the debate clip and portraying Mr. Barnes as a governor willing to accept a few child deaths.

"The truth is, Perdue knew then what he knows now, but he was saying what he needed to say to get elected," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah. "The truth is, the state can never be as good a parent as a good parent can be, but it helped him get elected, so he said it."

Bobby Kahn, who then was Mr. Barnes' top aide and now is chairman of the state Democratic Party, said: "This should never have been made a divisive political issue by Gov. Perdue. Perhaps now he understands the need for all Georgians to work together to make safer the plight of our children instead of trying to score cheap partisan points."

Senate Republican Leader Bill Stephens, of Canton, said Mr. Perdue has put "a sincere focus" on children's issues since taking office and has given them more attention in two years than Mr. Barnes did in four.

"Almost from week one, Gov. Perdue and the first lady have talked about everything from making children a priority to foster parents' rights. It's a track record that proves he's practicing what he preached," Mr. Stephens said.

The governor's communications director, Dan McLagan, put it this way: "The previous administration threw up its hands and accepted tragedy as inevitable. Gov. Perdue has rolled up his sleeves and made kids his top priority. He and the first lady will not rest until all our kids are safe from harm."

He credited his boss with retraining 1,500 child welfare workers, replacing the leadership in four counties and passing new child protection legislation.

But Rick McDevitt, the president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, said he's not seeing much difference under Mr. Perdue.

"I've seen very little except changing the heads of government agencies and offering that as substantial change. To me, it's just changing heads and not changing the way they do business," he said.

It's not a new problem, Mr. McDevitt added. "Services for kids didn't get bad when Roy Barnes was governor. It stunk then. It stinks now."

Mr. Bordeaux said people always need to question why a child dies that the state should have protected, "but we always have to recognize state government can't do it all and will never do it perfectly."