Did 5-year-old Terrell have to die?
Child protection system failed him – and covered up the truth
By Jane O. Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Write
It was at this southwest Atlanta apartment that police say Terrell Peterson was murdered by family members in January 1998. The district attorney called it “one of the most horrific cases of child abuse ever seen in Fulton County.”
When 5-year-old Terrell Peterson was pronounced dead last year at Hughes Spalding Children’s Hospital, doctors found his thin, frail body battered and bruised, scarred and malnourished. Death may have come from a blow to the head.
It was the brutal end to the brutal life of a child, who, at least as a baby, was described as always laughing, getting into everything and loving to blow spit bubbles.
Terrell’s grandmother and aunt and the aunt’s boyfriend have been charged with killing him. The two women could face the death penalty next year in two murder trials.
But there is another story, an untold story. And the public was barred from hearing it, just as the public is prevented from knowing how hundreds of other children have died after coming to the attention of the child protection system.
In Georgia, and throughout the country, details about child protection and what happens to children like Terrell are guarded with a level of secrecy generally reserved for matters of national security.
Confidentiality laws, designed to encourage citizens to report child abuse, also serve to shield child protection agencies from public scrutiny and accountability.
Terrell’s accused killers were not the only players in the child’s short life. In response to recurring signs of neglect and abuse, dozens of government, hospital and criminal justice workers drifted in and out of his world. But their actions have been kept secret in records that only became public in response to a court petition filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The records tell a story of torture and death that might have been prevented at a number of points:
D They chronicle sloppy investigations by the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services in seven complaints that Terrell and his two siblings were victims of neglect and abuse.
D They indicate that hospital personnel did not alert child protection workers when the boy was hospitalized with third-degree burns.
D They show that Terrell told authorities his grandmother beat him a year before he died, but a judge dismissed criminal charges against her when no one brought the child to court.
D And in the end, they reveal a government agency whose highest officials told the public they had done everything possible to save Terrell, despite two state internal investigations that had found otherwise.
Child welfare officials now say they cannot comment on Terrell’s case because they are expecting to be sued in a wrongful death case. Joyce Goldberg, a former spokeswoman for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, defended the child welfare agency, saying the state gives first-rate care to the vast majority of children needing its help. But she said cases like Terrell’s hurt the agency’s credibility.
“When something like this happens, your readers might readily jump to the conclusion that all cases are handled this way, and then covered up,” said Goldberg, now director of communications for Georgia’s new Department of Community Health. “And I don’t think that’s true.”
A life steeped in drugs
Terrell’s grandmother Pharina Peterson (top photo), his aunt Terri Lynn Peterson (middle) and Calvin Pittman face murder charges.
At the center of the story is Terrell, a bright little boy with a full head of dark, curly hair. “Bad and sweet,” his mother once called him, before she reportedly abandoned him for a life of drugs.
Terrell’s life was steeped in drugs. He was born in 1992 with cocaine in his blood. His mother was said to have been addicted to crack.
Seven times between 1991 and 1995, state records show, people called the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services to report apparent neglect of Terrell or his siblings, including:
D The mother is taking drugs while pregnant, using food stamps and welfare checks to buy crack, one caller reported in May 1992.
D The parents are locking the children in the bedroom on weekends, denying them food and water, another reported in August 1993.
D Mother is on drugs, children are unsupervised (February 1994).
D Children are begging neighbors for food, mother is using cocaine daily (January 1995).
DMother is addicted to crack, leaves children with their sickly maternal grandmother (November 1995).
Despite these reports, the children remained at home with their mother. Under the privacy laws that protect child abuse records, not even the people who called in the complaints were allowed to know what the child welfare agency was doing in response.
It wasn’t much, according to a subsequent internal investigation by the state. Throughout the family’s involvement with the Fulton child welfare agency, 11 caseworkers, overseen by 10 supervisors, handled the complaints. The investigation found that many caseworkers violated internal guidelines for investigating abuse and neglect reports.
No one, for instance, required drug tests for the parents, even though drugs were at the core of the complaints. They never checked criminal histories, even though they had reason to believe there was one. Some caseworkers never saw or interviewed the children, even though Terrell and his siblings were old enough to talk. They often failed to get pertinent medical records and they seldom checked with others who may have witnessed the children’s plight.
However, by June 1996, in response to the ongoing complaints, the child welfare agency pressured the mother to sign over guardianship of the children to their paternal grandmother, Pharina Peterson, then 48.
Little body marked and bruised
No one knows precisely, but events suggest Terrell became the object of physical abuse within six months of going to live with his grandmother.
On Dec. 3, 1996, an eighth complaint came into the Fulton Department of Family and Children Services, this time involving physical abuse rather than neglect. Police and medical records show that several days earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, an ambulance had taken 4-year-old Terrell to Hughes Spalding hospital after his mother said she found him covered with bruises. The child had been staying with her for the holiday.
Those familiar with the case say what happened next may have offered the best chance to make a difference in Terrell’s life, but instead became a missed opportunity. After he arrived at the hospital, Atlanta police investigator A.C. Booker was dispatched to the emergency room, where a doctor told her the child was a victim of long-term physical abuse.
“As I looked at little Terrell’s body, most of his injuries was old,” the investigator wrote. “However, he had marks, scars and lacerations about his body. His injuries included: right forehead and ear badly scarred, mark pattern, buttocks swollen and tender [reddish], lower back marked and left forearm.”
The child told Booker that his grandmother, Peterson, had beaten him with a belt and sometimes with a shoe. He said he received the latest beating “because he urinated in his clothes,” the police report states.
The doctor also noted the extent of Terrell’s fresh and old injuries and diagnosed him with “battered child syndrome.” “The patient [Terrell Peterson] said that his paternal grandmother [‘my grandmother’] did it,” the physician’s notes state. When the doctor asked how, the little boy answered his grandmother had hit him with a “white shoe and two belts,” and he held up two fingers to show what he meant.
That night, Atlanta police charged Pharina Peterson with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor, for the beating of her grandson. She was ordered to appear in Atlanta Municipal Court the following week to face the charge. After photographing the child’s injuries, police released Terrell to his mother with instructions that she should not return him to his grandmother.
But again Terrell’s case fell through the cracks, this time in an Atlanta courtroom.
The state’s investigation found that the Fulton County child protective services worker failed to show up at Peterson’s court hearing, and on Dec. 10, Judge Catherine Malicki dismissed the charge. The reason, as stamped in bold black letters on the arrest citation: “Victim not in court.”
Neither the judge nor the prosecutor remembers the case, and court transcripts from that year have been thrown out. But the solicitor assigned to prosecute Peterson said it appears no one else involved in Terrell’s case was in the courtroom that day. “DFACS should have had the kid in court,” said Darrell Kimbrell, the former assistant solicitor. “Or someone from DFACS should have been in court.”
Those familiar with the case say whatever happened in court, there was an obvious breakdown in communication. “That was one of the most depressing cases I ever saw,” said Suzanne Ockleberry, a former Fulton County prosecutor. “Because I think if someone had intervened that child still would be alive.”
Records indicate Terrell was back with his grandmother the day after her arrest, and the child welfare agency closed its case once the criminal charge was dropped. Peterson had told the caseworker she did not abuse Terrell and that his injuries were “from him falling, fighting at school, etc.” The state’s subsequent investigation found that the caseworker never got the police report, never interviewed Terrell or his siblings, never talked to the doctor, never requested medical records, never spoke to Terrell’s Head Start teacher to verify whether the child fell or fought a lot in school. She instead took the grandmother’s word for it.
Less than three weeks later, on Dec. 28, Terrell was back in Hughes Spalding hospital – this time with an infected third-degree burn to his left foot that one expert says should have raised immediate suspicion. Peterson told doctors Terrell had burned his feet the week before by standing on a space heater grate. She said she had been treating the burns herself, but his left foot had become infected, medical records show. Terrell was admitted to the hospital and a few days later had to have a skin graft from his hip. But this time, there is no record that anyone from the hospital reported the incident to the child welfare agency.
The severity of the burn was not consistent with Peterson’s explanation, and doctors should have raised questions about how it occurred, said Dr. Randell Alexander, director of the Center for Child Abuse at Morehouse School of Medicine. “I have a problem with that story,” Alexander said. “If it’s going to be hot, you’re going to jump off it as fast as you can. A 4-year-old is going to get off it.”
One year later, on the evening of Jan. 15, 1998, Terrell Peterson arrived at Hughes Spalding hospital in cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 10:55 p.m.
Peterson’s daughter, 29-year-old Terri Lynn Peterson, told police she had been feeding her nephew at 9 p.m. when the child told her he was tired and stopped breathing. She could not explain the abrasions, bruises and fresh blood on the child.
An autopsy the next morning showed Terrell had died from abuse suffered over a long period of time. Near-starvation had shrunk the 5-year-old to 29 pounds. After his death, the child welfare agency received reports that the boy had at times been force-fed and dunked head-first into a toilet.
The medical examiner said it wasn’t clear what finally killed Terrell. He may have starved to death. It may have been a blow to the head or several blows to the head. It may have been a combination of all that had been inflicted upon him.
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[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10.17.99]
Rich Addicks / AJC photo
All that remains: The autopsy report on Terrell’s death rests
atop a stack of other files relating to the child’s life and death.
SPECIAL REPORT: DEATH OF A 5-YEAR-OLD
The record was never set straight
Shortly after Terrell’s death, the state Division of Family and Children Services quietly began an internal investigation to see whether Fulton caseworkers and staff had followed agency policies. In a letter dated Feb. 11, 1998, Sarah Brownlee, then head of social services for the state, informed the agency’s top Fulton administrator that they had not.
Ralph Mitchell Rich Addicks / AJC photo
Fulton DFACS chief
Caseworkers had handled only one of the first seven complaints properly, she wrote to Ralph Mitchell, the Fulton agency head. She criticized his agency for failing to enforce safety plans for the children, to investigate complaints adequately and to verify what they were told.
But Brownlee’s primary criticism focused on the agency’s response to the 1996 abuse charge that prompted the arrest of Terrell’s grandmother. She detailed numerous “errors in policy and practice,” including the failure to interview the victim and the children, the failure to go to court, the failure to conduct a decent investigation.
“A 4-year-old whipped with a belt on his buttocks, back and face has been seriously abused by an adult who was clearly out of control,” the internal investigation had found. “The court record, obtained after the child’s death, states that the case was dismissed because the victim was not in court. . . . Why wasn’t the caseworker in court?”
Brownlee wrote that her staff’s review concluded that the Fulton child welfare agency had failed its fundamental mandate to “protect the child from further harm.” And she directed Mitchell to outline within two weeks steps he would take to prevent a similar tragedy. He later issued letters of reprimand to four staff members and sent the state copies. State officials said they never received any other response.
Meanwhile across town, another group met soon after Terrell’s death to review the case. Across Georgia, child fatality review teams meet regularly to analyze children’s deaths and determine whether they could have been prevented. In Fulton County, members include representatives of the medical examiner, district attorney, police, Juvenile Court, public health and the Department of Family and Children Services.
They too concluded Terrell’s death “definitely” could have been prevented. The group found that a systemwide failure – involving the courts, the child welfare agency, the police and the hospital – had contributed to the little boy’s death.
“This isn’t about falling through the cracks, this is about falling through the crater,” said Don Keenan, a lawyer who is preparing to sue the state in Terrell’s behalf. Keenan has subpoenaed state records in preparation for a lawsuit that he hopes will force the state to reform its child protection system.
In May 1998, a Fulton grand jury indicted Peterson, her daughter Terri Lynn, and her daughter’s boyfriend, Calvin Pittman, 22, for felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and cruelty to children.
At the time, neighbors expressed shock, and many spoke highly of the two women. Paul Howard, the Fulton County district attorney, said the Peterson women should die if they are convicted. He announced he would seek the death penalty for the grandmother, who is due to go on trial Jan. 24, and her daughter, whose trial is set for April 24. Pittman’s trial has not been scheduled.
‘All policies … were followed’
Despite the two critical reports, more than a year after Terrell’s death, none of the system’s failings that led to the child’s death has been publicly aired until now. The caseworkers’ shortcomings, the various players’ failures, as well as the two state investigations, were all protected under privacy laws that shield the child welfare system from public view.
Indeed, shortly after the indictments, officials gave the public and media a much different account of what had occurred.
In June 1998, Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis called for Mitchell’s resignation, citing Terrell’s death as another example of his agency’s failure to protect children.
In response, Mitchell’s office issued a news release June 3 calling Terrell’s death tragic but one the agency could not have prevented. The release said investigations at the state and local levels concluded that the agency had handled the child’s case properly.
Ralph Mitchell Rich Addicks / AJC photo
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article quoting Sherekaa Osorio, public relations manager for the Fulton child welfare agency, as saying, “This case has been extensively reviewed since the child’s death by county and state officials, and all policies and procedures were followed.”
A day later, Mitchell sent a memo to Peg Peters, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services, acknowledging the public statement had been wrong.
“Fortunately, there have been no further calls from the media to follow-up or contest the information contained in the statement,” Mitchell wrote.
In a recent interview, Mitchell at first said he didn’t remember how they had made the error in the news release, then said he believed the caseworker had given them false information. He said they’d based the release on what she’d told them. Yet by then, he’d already received the state’s scathing review. His agency had already officially responded by reprimanding staff.
When asked to explain, Mitchell would not comment.
Neither the county nor the state ever corrected the public statement. Mitchell and Osorio said they assumed Peters’ office would issue a correction; Peters said that would have been Mitchell’s responsibility.
Goldberg, the former spokeswoman for the state agency, said no one did anything. “Our policy has been to be forthright, to never deliberately distort information,” she said. “So it was a violation of that principle and I was upset. It was especially upsetting because it was a particularly egregious case.”
But of all the people who knew the true story of Terrell – state officials, county officials, members of the child fatality review team – no one spoke up to set the record straight. All say confidentiality laws prevent them from saying anything.
No visitors, no mourners
At the end of a dirt road in Randolph County, 170 miles south of Atlanta, Terrell Peterson’s body lies in a small country cemetery. Two old potted plants are toppled over near an oak tree that hangs over a small patch of red clay. They are the remnants of tributes paid to those buried in the Mitchell Grove Baptist Church cemetery in Cuthbert.
But there are no visitors to Terrell’s grave, no mourners to mark his passing, says Susie Crowell, a member of the church who knows Terrell’s kinfolk.
He’s buried in the family plot near the grave of Thomas Mitchell.
She says Terrell was buried in a hurry one day by some people who came down from Atlanta. The deacon happened to come upon them as they laid him in the ground.
“They just dug a hole and buried him,” Crowell says.