The autopsy photo shows a little boy who looks relieved to be dead. His eyes are closed. A hospital tube protrudes from his broken nose. He has deep cuts above his right ear and dark linear scars on his forehead. The bruises on his back are a succession of yellows, greens and blues. On the bottom of his tiny feet are unhealed third-degree burns. He had been battered and tortured. He had been tied with panty hose and belts to a banister by the woman who had become his foster grandmother. The state of Georgia had taken him away from his mother, then abandoned him in the woman's care. Little Terrell Peterson had so many injuries that the medical examiner gave up counting them. The child was six years old. He weighed only 29 lbs. The foster-care system is not working in Atlanta.
Nor is it working in Chicago, where a boy was beaten to death by two foster brothers who were known to be violent. It is not working in Bibb County, Ga., where a girl with cerebral palsy was placed in a home with a swimming pool; she was left unattended and drowned. And children are not protected in Dallas either. There two-year-old Joel Hernandez allegedly was beaten so severely that he had to be placed in a body cast. Yet social workers let him stay with his parents, then never set eyes on him--even after 15 visits to the family home brought no one to the door. All the social workers did was send a certified letter. Joel's body was later found in a shallow grave. His stepfather and uncle are charged with his murder.
Untimely death is often the only occasion for the public to catch a glimpse of the foster-care system. But there are living hells, and at times you can smell the brimstone a long way off. At others the evils come in disguise. In Gillette, Wyo., Homer and Beth Griswold were pillars of the community who were asked to be foster parents. She was a psychologist, a former member of the child-protection team. Her specialty was identifying sexual abuse. But while Beth baked Halloween cookies upstairs, Homer was downstairs molesting two of the girls in their care. Had anyone spent a couple of hours checking his background, they would have found previous allegations of abuse and harassment. Homer Griswold was sent to prison, and the girls were returned to their birth parents. "They take kids away from someone like me who hasn't got an education and money, but they give them to Homer?" asks a girl's father. "Now what am I supposed to do for my baby? You know, when she came home, I didn't know how to hold her. I didn't know if, after what she'd been through, she should sit on my lap."