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Children In Peril

By David Stoesz
Washington Post
September 3, 2002; Page A17
(Originally appeared at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27699-2002Sep2.html)

The failure of child protection has become a national scandal. In Florida , the director of the Department of Children and Families resigned after months of institutional embarrassment initiated by a missing 5-year-old foster child who has yet to be located. Not only were Florida child welfare workers found derelict in their duties but three children have died under agency supervision during the past four months.

A study of Maryland children revealed comparable neglect. Workers of the state's Social Services Administration had lost track of almost half their charges for as long as 16 months. Required criminal background checks had not been conducted on 45 percent of child caregivers; one child was discovered to have been under the supervision of a recidivist sex offender. Remarkably, one-third of cases failed to document the provision of health care to children; 68 percent had no record of having seen a dentist; and there was no evidence that 35 percent were attending school.

The District of Columbia 's travails in child protection -- 229 children died between 1993 and 2001 in the District, neglected by the very Child and Family Services Agency mandated to protect them -- were the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé by Post reporters last year. Yet the Florida , Maryland and D.C. experiences are consistent with the documented deterioration of how the nation cares for its most vulnerable citizens.

Annually, some 2,000 American children die of abuse and neglect; about 40 percent of these are known to child welfare agencies. The number of child deaths due to violence is in jarring contradiction to the nation's prosperity. The U.N. Human Development Index has ranked the United States consistently among the five most developed nations of the world; yet the American response to child maltreatment is decidedly retrograde. What can be done to improve child protection?

The crisis warrants a national Commission on Child Protection to review the status of child welfare and propose reforms that would strengthen the welfare of children. Minimally, a task force would recommend the following:

First, insist that validated, risk-assessment instruments be employed while working with troubled families. By collecting data on the status of at-risk children from troubled families, jurisdictions could compare agency performance across time (to determine improvement over the years) and space (in comparison to other jurisdictions). Such data could not only provide a baseline for child protection but also evidence of improvement or deterioration in program response.

Second, require local children's service agencies to open cases of children who are seriously injured or die under agency care or supervision. Confidentiality policies have become convenient screens behind which inept professionals can evade public scrutiny. Unless the probability of harm can be demonstrated, cases of children damaged after being placed under the care of child welfare agencies should be open for public review.

Third, in exchange for the billions in federal child welfare funding, states and localities should require (1) up-to-date reporting of the status of children under the care of government agencies and their subcontractors; (2) national certification for children's services workers -- with state-of-the-art skills and a commitment to ethics -- in supervisory positions; (3) consolidation of child welfare funding into a single program allowing the states wide latitude in experimentation. Federal funding to the states should be open-ended, yet only insofar as they meet specific performance standards. In addition, professional educational programs should be required to conduct experimental field research as a condition of getting training subsidies. As research on welfare reform amply demonstrates, field experiments can prove enormously informative in evaluating various intervention strategies.

Finally, establish a clearinghouse at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on child morbidity and mortality. A national database would allow the identification of those areas where the ultimate indicators of child welfare -- physical nurture and safety -- are being compromised, indicating the need to enhance services.

In the absence of reform, the children who are casualties of child welfare will be little more than ciphers. The $20 billion we allocate for children's services each year should be an investment in the future of maltreated children, not a subsidy for substandard care and professional ineptitude.

The writer is an associate professor of social policy at Virginia Commonwealth University . He has been a caseworker and welfare department director.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company. Reprinted with permission from Mr. Stoesz.