Ideas col­lected to save chil­dren in abu­sive homes

Blue-rib­bon panel to sug­gest closer watch, com­mu­ni­ca­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

The grisly tragedies mount: A Mis­souri mother has been charged with beat­ing her 1-year-old daugh­ter to death, and a Ken­tucky cou­ple are ac­cused of crim­i­nal abuse af­ter the mother dropped their new­born while high on drugs, re­sult­ing in the baby’s death.

In Hous­ton, six chil­dren who had been re­turned to their home af­ter a short stint in foster care were buried re­cently along with their par­ents, who were slain by another par­ent in a do­mes­tic dis­pute.

For decades, the na­tion has heard alarms about the hun­dreds of in­no­cent lives lost to abuse and ne­glect each year, usu­ally at the hands of one or both par­ents. But de­spite re­forms, leg­is­la­tion, fund­ing bat­tles and fin­ger-point­ing, states still strug­gle to en­sure child safety.

In fact, the death toll is about 1,500 chil­dren a year — about four a day, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment says — mak­ing mal­treat­ment a big­ger killer than can­cer among chil­dren younger than 15.

The tide may be about to turn, how­ever. A blue-rib­bon com­mis­sion is work­ing to gather fresh an­swers about how to stop such child fa­tal­i­ties. What it is learn­ing may lead to crit­i­cal changes in child wel­fare oper­a­tions — and save lives.

“I do be­lieve … that we have some things that are just very dif­fer­ent be­cause peo­ple haven’t had the op­por­tu­nity to put things to­gether on a na­tional level,” said clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist David San­ders, chair­man of the 12-mem­ber fed­eral Com­mis­sion to Elim­i­nate Child Abuse and Ne­glect Fa­tal­i­ties.

The panel is ex­pected to pro­vide rec­om­men­da­tions in March, based on more than a dozen meet­ings it has held around the na­tion, in­clud­ing a re­cent one in New York.

De­spite wide agree­ment that there is no sim­ple an­swer to pre­vent child fa­tal­i­ties, there are prece­dents for suc­cess, said Mr. San­ders, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for Casey Fam­ily Pro­grams and for­mer di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices.

About 40 per­cent of tips about vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices are “screened out” — of­ten for lack of ev­i­dence — and the agency takes no fur­ther ac­tion, Mr. San­ders said.

How­ever, re­search shows that that group of chil­dren “is among the most vul­ner­a­ble for later fatality,” he said.

A pro­posed im­prove­ment would be to re­quire that ev­ery mal­treat­ment tip about a child younger than 1 gen­er­ate a prompt visit.

“Some­body needs to see that child,” said Mr. San­ders, not­ing that the vast ma­jor­ity of child fa­tal­i­ties in­volve some of the youngest.

Another tac­tic would be to of­fer so­cial pro­grams, such as those for new par­ents or “safe sleep­ing,” ear­lier than later.

An ad­di­tional area for change is cross-com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices work­ers may visit a fam­ily, but they won’t know whether po­lice came the night be­fore for a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence call or whether the child has been miss­ing well-baby ap­point­ments, Mr. San­ders said. When in­for­ma­tion like this isn’t shared, it can have “deadly con­se­quences,” he said.

“There’s no rea­son in the 21st cen­tury that there is an in­abil­ity to share in­for­ma­tion,” he said, not­ing that the in­for­ma­tion gap has been cited “in state af­ter state af­ter state.”

There is no doubt that miss­ing or mis­di­rected in­for­ma­tion about a fam­ily in cri­sis has con­trib­uted to chil­dren be­ing killed, ac­cord­ing to media in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The Mi­ami Her­ald last year found 477 child fa­tal­i­ties in Florida over six years. In one case in which the mother and chil­dren were killed, the death re­view found that neigh­bors and oth­ers fa­mil­iar with the es­tranged hus­band were not in­ter­viewed about the fam­ily.

In another case, so­cial work­ers who checked on a cock­roach­in­fested house saw a bug prob­lem more than a men­tal health or drug abuse prob­lem. That was a fa­tal mis­take, the Her­ald re­ported, as sev­eral years and mul­ti­ple child wel­fare vis­its later, three girls were found mal­nour­ished and their 10-month-old brother, Milo Ru­pert, was found dead. The squalid home was in­fested with thou­sands of cock­roaches.

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