An urgency to fix the child welfare system

Date: 2008-04-18

Marylou Sudders and Maureen Flatley
April 18, 2008
THE DEATHS of Dontel Jeffers, Rebecca Riley, and Liquarry Jefferson, and the horrifying injuries sustained by Haleigh Poutre reveal not just cracks but gaping holes in our state's child welfare system. We all must share a sense of urgency about the child abuse crisis in Massachusetts. Governor Patrick has taken an important first step with the appointment of Juvenile Court Judge Gail Garinger as the first child advocate.

more stories like this Dontel, Rebecca, and Haleigh were not "lost" in the system. Each of them was obviously at risk. Teachers, school nurses, family members, neighbors, and others raised concerns. Yet, incredibly, decisions were made to leave them in dangerous situations. Dontel Jeffers died after nine days in a foster home. Rebecca Riley died of a prescription drug overdose. Liquarry Jefferson died of a gunshot wound from an illegal weapon kept in his home. Haleigh Poutre remains in a rehabilitation hospital, the victim of 17 serious allegations of abuse, the center of a debate on end-of-life decisions, and a young girl who needs a loving family to call her own.

The litany of abuses continues even now.

A few weeks ago, despite persistent calls from school officials, a 7-year old Middleborough boy was left in a home where he was repeatedly beaten with a belt and burned on his genitals, pelvis, and buttocks. Nationally, a federal report finds that 1 in 50 infants in the United States have been neglected or abused.

The new Office of the Child Advocate could easily become overwhelmed by these scenarios. Fortunately, Judge Garinger is grounded in the underlying statutes, regulations, and policies of the state agencies charged with caring for and protecting children. But, to further inform her work, we would suggest a different method of orientation. Rather than listen to the excuses that have passed for analysis of these cases, we urge that the office develop and maintain a pressing sense of urgency about investigating these cases and looking beyond the prepared reports.

The child advocate should shape her insights and approach to oversight by becoming immersed in the lives of these children. Intervene. Meet with the grieving birth parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who loved these children. Listen to neighbors, teachers, and school nurses talk about their often valiant efforts to get the system to engage. Ask the tough questions. Are we doing enough to follow up with school officials and others if they have concerns about a child's safety? If parents are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse issues, or poverty, are we able to help them so that they can parent? And finally, how many allegations, how many red flags need to be raised before we say, "Enough." Press relentlessly for answers.

For child victims, the child advocate may be their only voice. The child advocate is responsible for getting to the bottom of things and making findings public. The office must demand accountability from individuals and agencies. The child advocate must be a crusader not just for justice but also for change. We will look to her to tell us how the families and systems around these children could have been further strengthened. The child advocate must make bold statements about budgeting, workforce development, and quality assurance. Children deserve the same kinds of consumer protections and accountability we insist on for other, less critical services.

When Dontel, Rebecca, Liquarry, and other children were injured and killed, it was all too easy to rationalize their tragedies as a "system failure." But the system didn't make the decisions that left these children at risk; people did. And it will take people to fix the system.

At a time when the world is galvanized about human rights abuses against children around the world, we must do a better job of protecting children right here at home. The Commonwealth has taken a good first step with the appointment of the child advocate. We stand prepared to help that office make the children of Massachusetts a priority for everyone.

Marylou Sudders is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Maureen Flatley is a member of the MSPCC board and the managing partner of the Empire Bay Group, a public policy consulting firm specializing in child welfare oversight.


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