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Child Protectors Cannot Count

October 30, 2005 permalink

The following opinion piece from the Indianapolis Star shows again that numbers coming from child protection agencies simply cannot be trusted. In Canada the level of secrecy is even greater than in the USA, so the figures are even less credible.


collapse Opinion

October 30, 2005

Get the numbers right to show extent of child abuse

Our position:

State's continued inability to record accurate number of child abuse deaths points to other serious problems in the system.

Abuse Victims

Four-month-old Katie Michelle Stacy should have been counted.

One-year-old Anthony McClendon Jr. should have as well.

After Katie died last year, her parents were charged with criminal neglect. Anthony was shot to death during a robbery at a crack house while in the care of his father.

Yet, both children, along with eight other young victims, were left out of the Indiana Department of Child Services' 2004 report on deaths from abuse or neglect.

If the 10 deaths, revealed in a story on today's front page by Star reporter Tim Evans, had been included in the report, 2004 would have gone down as the state's deadliest year on record. The rate of child deaths in Indiana was more than twice the national average.

This isn't the first time Indiana has significantly underreported the number of child deaths. An earlier investigation by The Star found that between 1999 and 2002, state government failed to account for nearly one-third of the deaths from abuse and neglect.

Why do such numbers matter? Hoosiers need to have an accurate understanding of what is happening to children in their communities. Deaths aren't exactly rare -- not when three children were killed, as Evans found, on a single day in February 2004. Not when the state has averaged one child's death from abuse or neglect per week for more than a decade.

And as Dr. Antoinette Laskey, a forensic pediatrician, points out, accurate data are key to creating prevention programs that truly work.

"When everyone is operating in a vacuum, you know what is happening in your county, but if you don't realize it's a statewide problem, the recognition of large-scale prevention efforts are missed,'' she told Evans.

There also is the matter of accountability. Despite state reforms and widespread media attention, the number of deaths jumped to a record level last year. From the governor to state legislators, from the state headquarters of DCS to the county field offices, there needs to be an intensive evaluation of which efforts are working and which aren't.

The discrepancy -- especially in numbers that receive as much attention as the list of fatalities -- also highlights the fact that Indiana doesn't really have one child protection system. In essence, it has 92, one for each county DCS office.

James Payne, DCS director, has promised to fix that. And he's taken important steps in that direction by, among other things, improving training and rewriting guidelines. But a great deal of work remains to fix a child protection system that has been broken for many years.

Some critics in the child welfare system argue that the news media's focus on abuse deaths can be counterproductive because caseworkers, to protect themselves, might be more apt to unnecessarily remove children from their homes. The critics, to a degree, have a point.

The number of abuse deaths, although tragic, is dwarfed by the thousands of children who suffer from lesser but still destructive forms of abuse and neglect. Prevention programs primarily must focus on those victims.

Pushing more children into foster care, a system with its own serious problems, can leave many of them emotionally scarred for years.

Bottom line is that there are no easy answers when it comes to protecting children from the horrors of abuse and neglect. Improving prevention, rebuilding foster care and bolstering the quality of caseworkers all will require sustained effort. And all demand a sense of urgency given what is at stake.

Getting the numbers right, however, is an important beginning in helping the public understand the scope of abuse and enabling the professionals to design effective steps toward prevention.

Unfortunately, as with so much else when it comes to protecting children, Indiana hasn't been getting the numbers right. Continuing that failure is unacceptable.

Source: Indianapolis Star