Thursday, November 04th, 2010 | Author: mjward

We’ve all seen and heard the stories. The news blares out the death of a child at the hands of a parent. Day after day, month after month we hear the pathetic details as the case is investigated, and the perpetrator is charged, tried, and convicted.

In Tucson, Arizona, Ariana and Tyler Payne, aged three and four, were in the care of their father, although their mother had legal custody. They disappeared during the summer of 2006. Ariana’s body was found on February 17, 2007, in a plastic tub that had been kept at a storage unit. Tyler’s was never found. Their father confessed to starving the children. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In Toronto, Ontario, a teacher noticed whip marks on seven-year-old Randal Dooley. The vice-principal called the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to report abuse. Randal was left with his family. Some months later, he was found dead of head injuries. His stepmother and father were convicted of second-degree murder in 2002. In both the Payne and Dooley cases, police and child protection staff were involved. But no one followed up on the Payne children after a first check determined that the children were cared for properly. When they were not allowed to talk with Randal alone, police left the matter to the CAS. In addition, no one followed up on his welfare after the family moved.

Every year, it is estimated that almost 3500 children under the age of fifteen die from abuse and neglect in industrialized countries.* Over 1700 these children die in the United States.** Preschoolers, especially babies, are at the greatest risk because they are the least able to protect themselves or to get help. They also tend to spend more time alone with their parents. Officials, media, and the public look for someone to blame for these tragedies. Many of the children, like Ariana, Tyler, and Randal, are known to child welfare authorities before their deaths. What went wrong? Why didn’t a child protection worker step in and remove the children from their homes before they became a tragic statistic? New laws are often passed setting out stricter rules and demanding greater vigilance by authorities. They don’t always work.

Often the situation is complex and has many uncertainties. Child protection workers are called on to assess both the danger and risk to the child. Is the child in immediate danger of harm if he or she is left with parents? Is the child at risk of harm sometime in the future? Both of these questions call for judgment calls on the part of the worker. Sometimes agency staff don’t use the same working definitions of “danger” and “risk.” Several questionnaires and check lists have been developed to help front-line workers with their assessments. But these are not perfect and do not provide an exact rating system and depend to a degree on the worker’s judgment. This is based both on education and experience. Some parents and other caregivers are expert at fooling others. They may appear to be competent and attentive adults to outsiders, but secretly pose a lethal risk to children in their care. In addition, budget cutbacks have reduced already scanty financial allotments for child protection. Therefore agency staff are burdened with such high caseloads that they may miss signs that suggest that the child is in danger. The situation is made worse when police officers and child protection staff don’t communicate and cooperate to keep children as safe as possible.

In fact, no set of criteria can accurately predict which children will die at the hands of family members or be critically injured. One study** using the best standards known to professionals found that less than one-quarter of the children predicted to have a fatality or near-fatality actually did so. That means that over three-fourths of the children in suspicious cases were not severely injured. Does this mean that all those deemed to be at severe risk should be removed from their families? Imagine the public outcry over “baby-snatching.” The public purse could not afford substitute care for all these children. Separation from parents also takes its toll on children’s well-being.

A Canadian study*** points out that a focus on the failures of the child welfare system ignores underlying problems. For example, the family may experience the stress of poverty or be recent immigrants without a helpful support system. In one situation, a young stepmother struggled to care for a baby, Sophia, that her husband had fathered with another woman while he lived with his wife. She had three children under six to care for as well as Sophia. The family situation became increasingly tense when her husband was laid off. The mother looked for help from a number of organizations, but the needed resources were not available. She asked her husband to leave and take Sophia with him. The nine-month-old baby died before anyone found a solution.

There are no simple solutions to the threat of child endangerment. Saving children in danger demands the vigilance and best efforts of everyone involved. Even then there will probably be failures when these efforts fail.


* UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2003). A league table of child maltreatment deaths in rich nations (Innocenti Report Card, Issue No. 5). Florence, Italy: Author.

**Huebner, R. A., Webb, T., Brock, A., & Rock, S. (2010). Using models of lethality to enhance child welfare risk and safety assessment. Protecting Children, 25(3), 76-89.

*** Mennill, S., & Strong-Boag, C. (2008). Identifying victims: Child abuse and death in Canadian families. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médicine, 25, 311-333.

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