Ideas collected to save children in abusive homes
Blue-ribbon panel to suggest closer watch, communication
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.