A few years ago I introduced you to Terrell Peterson, a child who in his short lifetime was abused and eventually beaten to death by his parents. A child never to be an unruly child, but a child who was just as curious as the next, a rambunctious child full of life. In January 1998, 5-year-old Terrell Peterson was beaten to death, allegedly by his foster mother. There may have been another accomplice: the state of Georgia.
Discovered by Jane Hansen, a reporter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution; more than 800 children have died since 1995 -after coming to the attention of the Georgia’s child welfare agency. Some died in accidents or from illness; others were murdered. Exactly what happened to the children is a mystery, because the state keeps their records secret. Their secrecy is suppose to protect the child’s privacy, however, the privacy law is used to cover up the negligence of state officials so no one can say how many children in Georgia’s care have suffered.
When Terrell was brought to an Atlanta emergency room, doctors struggling to restart his heart the doctors noticed that he was covered with cuts, bruises and cigarette burns. He weighed 29 pounds. Georgia has strict rules that the social services must follow when removing children to a new family. Children are supposed to be placed with blood relatives and to be visited in person every month. Under no circumstances are foster parents allowed to hit foster children.
The department broke every one of these rules. Terrell was placed in the care of Fran Peterson, who wasn’t directly related to him. She was the grandmother of Terrell’s half brother and half sister. There were no monthly visits. In fact, caseworkers rarely appeared. If they had visited, they might have heard what the other children in the home told investigators after Terrell’s death. Another child who lived in the home, Tasha, told investigators that Peterson tied Terrell up “a lot.”
After his death, the police discovered pantyhose had been used to tie Terrell to a banister in the apartment. They found instructions, allegedly written by Peterson: “He gets a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, lunch he gets grits, and dinner he gets grts. His hands are always tied.”
There were other signs that Terrell was in danger. One day, his Head Start teacher, Joanne Bryant, found him rummaging through a trash can, looking for food. After a Thanksgiving beating in 1996, Terrell made his first trip to the emergency room. The doctor diagnosed him with battered-child syndrome. Peterson was arrested. During the course of his life of falling through the states cracks and when DFACS had a hearing, several rules were broken. Peterson was to appear for her trial she never showed and Terrell wasn’t there. Bringing him to court was the responsibility of his caseworker, Cheryl Elmore, but she didn’t bring him nor did she show up herself. With no victim in court, the judge dismissed the case. The case worker, Elmore might have acknowledged her error and asked to have the hearing rescheduled. She didn’t. Instead she wrote a memo that sealed Terrell’s fate. Thus, covering up which would later be brought to light through media. “The caseworker issued a backdated fraudulent lie of a memo that said the judge, after hearing all the evidence, determined that there was no child abuse and dismissed the case,” Keenan said. “An absolute, bold-faced unadulterated lie.” Elmore’s memo stated, “The judge believed Ms. Peterson (and) did not feel she was guilty of child abuse.” The Department of Family and Children Services concluded that Terrell was safe, closed his file and sent him back to Peterson. “Again, I can’t speak for Miss Elmore,” said Peggy Peters, who was director of the department when Terrell died. “I certainly would not have made that decision.”
Terrell returned to his Head Start class, but by then there was something terribly wrong. Bryant, his teacher, asked him if he was injured. He didn’t answer, so she took off his shoe. His foot was burned. Peterson “was so mad about being arrested that she burned the flesh off the bottom of both his feet within a week after getting him back,” Keenan said. She “burned the bottom of his feet so bad that he had to have skin transplanted from his hip onto his little feet so he could walk.”
According to Keenan, the department never saw Terrell during the year between his stay in the hospital for those burns and the time he was killed.
The photographs taken by the coroner provide a good idea of what that year was like. The coroner found it hard to choose a cause of death. In the end he wrote simply, “blunt impact injuries to the head, trunk and extremities.” Peterson has been charged with capital murder.
The murder is not the end of the story. The department conducted two internal investigations of Terrell’s case. The conclusions were harsh: “failure to make contacts,” “failure to conduct mandatory monthly meetings,” “a serious lack of judgment,” and”numerous violations throughout the history of the case.” But these were internal investigations, and the public wasn’t told about them. After the investigations, department officials decided to cover up what they had done. The department made only one public statement, which was written by Ralph Mitchell, the administrator of the Atlanta area office. He said that his agency shared the sense of “outrage at the loss of precious life” but that the department had responded”immediately and comprehensively” and “all of (its) steps were followed in the case of Terrell.”
After making that statement, Mitchell wrote a private memo to his boss at state headquarters. He admitted that the press release was “untrue.” But he went on to reassure his boss that fortunately no one in the media had called to follow up. The memo was addressed to Peters. Peters said that she knew that Mitchell had not told the truth in the press release and told him to “correct” it.
Department officials didn’t have to worry about being discovered, because Terrell’s records were sealed by the state privacy law. The cover-up lasted more than a year – until Terrell’s files were delivered anonymously to Keenan. Keenan said that someone inside the department was motivated by guilt. “If it weren’t for somebody who just couldn’t sleep anymore, who couldn’t live with themselves, that lie would still be sticking,” he said. Both Mitchell and Elmore declined to be interviewed.
The Terrell Peterson case is not the only one, according to former employees of the department. They told 60 Minutes II that the privacy law fosters a culture of indifference.
“I have seen during my tenure, confidentiality used to cover up sloppy work, used to diminish the risk for litigation,” said Fred Zackery, a former department supervisor. Another former supervisor, Sylvia Jenkins, was still troubled by what the department told the media about another boy who died in 1996.
“I was really concerned about the lack of truth that was in the press release,” she said. “It was determined that all the necessary services had not been given. But the press release said just the opposite of that.” Jenkins and Zackery said they were fired by the department because they insisted on working by the book. They’re now suing the state.
“For so long it had been accepted that if you made the visits, OK. If you didn’t make the visits, nothing was going to happen,” Zackery said. “If a child died, the child died.” Georgia’s governor, Roy Barnes, ordered a review of all foster care deaths. According to Peters, Elmore was still working as a social worker for the department. Mitchell is in the same job he was in at the time he wrote the memo. After Terrell died, another caseworker evaluated the situation and decided that Peterson was fit to take care of Terrell’s half sister and half brother who had been in the household at the time of the murder. That caseworker wrote: “Ms. Peterson will cooperate with the agency and continue to show interest in the support of the child while they are at home.” “I think, again you’d have to look at the individual situation,” Peters said.
“And if she had not harmed those other children, then it might be acceptable,” she said.
The department has since decided that it would not be acceptable to send them back. They are now with another family. Gov. Barnes wants to set up a Child Advocate Office, with the power to super cede the confidentiality law and inspect any case at any time. Terrell was buried in rural Georgia; his headstone was paid for by his attorneys.
Today, another child, Emani Moss, a 10 year old beaten and burned to death. On March 19, 2010, then-6-year-old Emani told a school nurse she was afraid to go home with her bad report card because she was afraid her parents would hurt her, according to one of the police reports. When the nurse investigated further, she found the girl had bruises on her body and reported it to police. There were clear circumstances that would have protected 10 year old Emani Moss yet no one took a step back to investigate instead leaving her in harms way later to be beaten, malnourished and burned to death found in a trashcan where her step father had thrown her out to cover up her abuse. Fox 5 news reported that in past instances from Emani’s father and step mother would have or should have prevented this child from being taken back to her parents. This story shouldn’t be the end of her life, instead this should open up other cases like Terrell Peterson’s and Emani Moss children who have clearly slipped through this systems cracks.
Police took Emani and her stepmother to department headquarters for interviews that day and said Emani had severe bruises and welts on her chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs, the police report said. Tiffany Moss told police she only hit the girl with a belt three times, the report said. She was arrested on a child-cruelty charge. The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services signed a 2010 plea deal ordering Tiffany Moss to serve five years of probation for beating Emani, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday. In July 2012, Emani tried running away from home, the police reports show.
The girl’s grandmother, Robin Moss, was quoted by local news media on Sunday and Monday as saying that she suspected Emani was being abused, but couldn’t persuade state authorities to grant her custody. Emani’s mother, Danita Leaks, told Atlanta FOX affiliate WAGA-TV on Monday that she and Eman Moss fought over custody for two to three years and she was unaware that her daughter was being abused. “If I would have known that him and his wife were abusing my baby, I would not have let her stay over there,” she told the television station.
Authorities initially said Eman Moss called police early Saturday saying he was suicidal and that his daughter died after drinking some type of chemical substance. Smith said Monday that the detail about Moss being suicidal was a miscommunication during the 911 call and was later clarified with the dispatcher. Police said they won’t release audio from the call because it’s part of the investigation and could be used in court.
This news was reported by ABCnews follow link below: