What will it take to protect kids from abuse?

This week, Attorney General Martha Coakley is responding to the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver of  Fitchburg while supposedly under state supervision by presenting a proposal to form a child protective division within the Department of Children and Families.  Jeremiah’s disappearance went on for months and was eventually made public, not by DCF but by his sister telling school officials. One case worker and two supervisors were fired, not just for failing to make monthly visits but for doctoring the records to imply that everything was okay. Would that this were an isolated case!

History suggests not.  Today, the Boston Herald reports a suit being heard against DCF for failure to heed warning that an Acton toddler was at risk. In 2010, the baby was beaten to death by his mother, who has been convicted. The Boston Globe today writes that it took 13 reports from the Northbridge schools to DCF to get action in the case of a second grader was being sexually abused at home. So, too, is it alleged that DCF failed to respond to reports of suspected neglect when a first-grader missed more than 75 days of school. The list goes on. And the systemic flaws have endured for decades.

The alleged “solutions” repeat themselves as often as the scandals. Coakley’s proposal, she said, would put the focus on children at risk, even while DCF tries to help their families.  It’s like a headline from the 1980’s. Such systemic failure has been going on for at least that long. Back then, journalists could recite a litany of horror stories resulting in the maiming or death of little children. And still the problem generates action only when the public can no longer ignore the headlines. Political candidates bemoan the tragedies. Talk show callers demand action. Legislators hold hearings. Some call for independent commissions. Social workers or aggrieved family members file suit. Agencies get renamed or restructured. And the cycle begins again.

In the ’80’s and ’90’s,  child abuse reached epidemic proportions. Family violence against children was exacerbated by the impact of crack cocaine.  But just because crack was a poor people’s drug,  child abuse wasn’t just a poor people’s crime. The late Loretta Kowal, a Welfare Department social worker who became head of the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, told anyone who would listen that child abuse is not limited to the poor, but crosses socio-economic lines. Wish she were around now.

It’s dispiriting to think that the editorials Phil Balboni and I did in 1980 at Channel 5 are as applicable today. Coakley’s plan to separate child protection from the umbrella agency echoes the creation back then of the Department of Social Services (DSS) to separate welfare support from child protection.  In the wake of highly visible abuse cases, social workers in 1978 had filed against the state protesting excessive caseload.  U. S. District Judge Robert Keeton’s 1982 judgment in the case threatened Massachusetts with loss of federal money if the state didn’t clean up its act and reduce caseload to a limit of 20.  Still, stories abound today of caseworkers handling between 40 and 50 cases.

Protecting kids from abuse and neglect is a nearly impossible task.  If an agency waits too long to remove a child from an abusive home and something terrible happens, the agency gets blamed.  If an agency moves quickly to remove a child from home and the child is abused in foster care, the agency gets blamed.  Can we afford to keep families together? Can we afford not to?  Whatever the agency name of the moment, it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

Governor Patrick, calmly waiting to make judgment based on facts, says he takes all these cases seriously but reminds people of the “miracles” the department routinely performs, which get little attention. That’s very true, but  I’d like to see a little more outrage.  Leaders from Ghandi to Hubert Humphrey have reminded us that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. And who is more vulnerable than small children?

We need to be willing to make a priority of counseling, training, supervision and whatever else will reduce the maiming and killing of children by those to whom they are entrusted. Otherwise, Coakley’s proposal will amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and we’ll be back where we are, with how many more dead.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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