(CBS) 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.
As 60 Minutes II Correspondent Scott Pelley first reported this January, more than 800 children have died since 1995 – after coming to the attention of the Georgia’s child welfare agency.
Click here to read the January report and the August update:
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.
As 60 Minutes II Correspondent Scott Pelley discovered, 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 these children is a mystery, because the state keeps their records secret. That’s supposed to protect the privacy of the child. But the privacy law is also 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 noticed that he was covered with cuts, bruises and cigarette burns. He weighed 29 pounds.
“Thank God he was dead,” said Don Keenan, who is suing the state of Georgia on Terrell’s behalf. “I think anybody (who) would have known or understood what this little guy was going through, would rejoice in his death.”
Terrell’s mother was a crack addict. So the Department of Family and Children Services encouraged another family to take him – to, in effect, make Terrell their foster child.
Georgia has strict rules that the department must follow when moving 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.
But when Peterson appeared for her trial, 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.
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.
“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 Raph 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, recently 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,” Petrs 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 supercede the confidentiality law and inspect any case at any time.
Terrell was buried in rural Georgia; his headstone was paid for by his attorneys.
Since the 60 Minute II piece aired in January, the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services decided not to send Terrell’s half sister and half brother back to Fran Peterson. They are now with another family.
Also, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided several offices of the Department of Family and Children Services. A criminal investigation is ongoing in the cases of several murdered children. Ralph Mitchell, the supervisor who issued the press release designed to cover up Terrell’s case, has now retired from the department.
In addition, the Georgia legislature passed the Terrell Peterson Act, which allows doctors to take temporary custody of battered children at the hospital.