Child Abuse in Foster Care

Date: 2007-12-19

James Earl Bradley Jr. and Isaac Lethbridge.

If you recognize these names, it's probably because you've read them in the pages of this newspaper. What also makes these names memorable is that they belong to children killed by those who should have been protecting and caring for them.

Last year, 2-year-old Isaac Lethbridge was beaten to death at a Detroit foster home. Three-year-old James Earl Bradley Jr. died last April from a beating at a foster home in Van Buren Township.

These were preventable tragedies. Twelve days before Isaac was killed, social service workers saw him with two black eyes and bruises all over his body but failed to report their observations. Within days after James Bradley's death, his foster mother's day care was shut down for previous violations of the Child Care Organizations Act.

There are other children who die in state care, some by violence and some by bureaucratic unresponsiveness; I met with two foster mothers who told me their children died from cancer because the state bureaucracy did not approve chemotherapy in time. Many deaths of children in state care could have been prevented. Yet we not only have failed to stop these deaths -- we don't even have reliable information about how many die and why.

In Michigan, child deaths are reported by the Department of Community Health, the Child Death Review Team Program, the Department of Human Services, the children's ombudsman, and a national project called Kids Count. Each of these entities uses a different standard in counting child deaths, and their published statistics are grouped into different age categories. As a result, their statistics don't match, and a comparison of their figures doesn't provide a clear conclusion on how many children have died in state care in any given year.

Our second challenge, once we have that information, is finding effective ways to share it. The children's ombudsman has the power to conduct an inquiry into the death of a child in state care, yet there is no requirement for notifying the ombudsman of these deaths.

Michigan has five avenues of review of deaths of children in state care, and each of these death review teams addresses important issues and collects valuable data. But we have no statutory framework for mandating they collaborate with one another.

The results: duplication of effort, limited vision, and frustration. Also, courts are not included on these local death review teams, and these teams do not ordinarily obtain court records as part of their review. This is a serious gap in information sharing.

We in the child welfare system must and can do better.

First, we need an independent investigative oversight body focused on the problem of children dying in state care. This group should extend across all three branches of state government and should have access to the information collected by existing child death review entities. It should identify specific causes and systemic problems that contribute to the risk of child mortality. This group also should make comprehensive recommendations for prevention.

Second, for the same reasons, we need a single repository of information concerning children who have died in state care. The inquiry should include children who have died in foster care, children who have died after being under court jurisdiction, and children who have died after having any contact with child protective services. We need to know how many have died, how they died, and whether each death could have been prevented.

Third, we need to increase collaboration among the agencies that currently review child deaths. In particular, we need a law that requires the Department of Human Services to notify the children's ombudsman whenever a child has died in foster care. We also need legislation to permit DHS, the ombudsman and the courts to share child death information with each other.

Fourth, we need to bring the judiciary to the child death review teams. We should routinely include court records in the death review process and add judges to state and local death review teams. As a first step, the Family Services Division of the State Court Administrative Office has established a Child Death Review Committee within the judicial branch. This committee's work will be advanced if the Legislature authorizes the Department of Human Services and children's ombudsman to share case-specific information with the Child Death Review Committee.

James Earl Bradley Jr. and Isaac Lethbridge. Too many others. We will have failed these children a second time if we do not act to prevent other children's deaths.

Maura D. Corrigan is a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

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