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Wexler on Protection

August 3, 2006 permalink

Following the beating of Xctasy Garcia by her mother's boyfriend in Schenectady New York, Richard Wexler describes three ways not to solve the problem:

  • More snitches
  • A database of rumor and innuendo
  • Blackball parents



Child abuse deserves our best solution

More than 18 years ago, when I was a reporter for the Times Union, I covered a photo opportunity featuring then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. He went to the state Child Abuse Hotline, listened to a call and touted the quick-fix-of-the-day for cracking down on child abuse.

At that time, the name that shocked the conscience of the state was Lisa Steinberg, the little girl murdered by the man who had illegally adopted her.

"With Lisa's help," said the governor, "maybe the next child can be saved."

It didn't work out that way. Instead, every few years, another case horrifies us. The same "solutions" are proposed. They fail. We repeat the cycle. The name in the news now is Xctasy Garcia. And once again, politicians are touting solutions that are simple, obvious -- and wrong. As a result, the odds of another child suffering as Xctasy did already have increased.

Consider the "solutions" mentioned so far, many of which are likely to turn up in the inevitable "Xctasy's Law":

Phony Solution 1: Force every government employee to pass on any second- or third-hand account alleging any harm to a child, no matter how vague, to the state hot line.

That will backfire. In Xctasy's case, a neighbor offered a vivid description of horrendous abuse of a terrified, screaming child. By the time the story went from the neighbor to the hotel manager to the welfare examiner who "failed" to call the hot line, the account had become a vague allegation of noisy neighbors who might be hurting a child.

The hot line might not have accepted it. And if it did accept every such case, frontline caseworkers would be so deluged investigating all the noisy neighbors who don't abuse their children that they would have no time to examine any case properly -- and they'd miss more children in real danger.

Phony Solution 2: Quickly fund the new National Database of Rumor and Innuendo. That's not what it's called, of course, but that's what the new law combining everything in 50 state central registers really is.

This is not like a database of criminal records. All that it takes to wind up in a child abuse register is one caseworker's guess that you might be a child abuser. There is no chance to defend yourself beforehand. And in half the states, including New York, the worker is supposed to put you in the register even if there is more evidence of innocence than guilt.

Some states have long, cumbersome appeals processes. Other states allow no appeal at all. If any angry or misinformed caller dials the hot line and the wrong caseworker winds up at your door, you're in. Period.

Some would argue that adults should pay that price to help children. But again, it will backfire by overloading workers with false allegations.

And some of the accused in central registers are children themselves. The Illinois register once included a 10-year-old girl as a possible sexual predator -- because she had pulled up the pants of some younger boys she had caught "playing doctor" in her family's home day care. She was driven almost to suicide before a class-action lawsuit created a real appeals procedure in Illinois. Had she lived in another state, she still would be branded for life. And the new national database will brand such children nationwide.

Phony Solution 3: Do a child abuse check whenever someone applies for other government help. This at least has the advantage of bringing the racial and class biases that permeate child welfare into the open. The only difference between poor people and the rest of us is that their poverty itself often is confused with neglect. Singling them out for checks in an unreliable database only increases the chances their families will be needlessly destroyed -- and workers will be overwhelmed with false reports, missing real abusers, like the well-to-do lawyer who killed Lisa Steinberg.

But worse than any one phony solution is the cumulative effect: a foster-care panic, as every caseworker, terrified of having the next Xctasy Garcia on her caseload, rushes to take away far more children and throw them into foster care. One recent study by Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School found that foster-care "alumni" have twice the level of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans. One-third said they had been abused in foster care itself and only 20 percent could be said to be doing well.

And that's not even the worst of it. Over and over, foster-care panics have been followed by increases in deaths of children known-to-the-system, because overwhelmed caseworkers overlooked even more children in real danger.

Sometimes even the odds of harm in foster care are worth it. When sadistic brutes injure a child, authorities should take away the child and never look back.

But we pay no tribute to the child by shoveling thousands of other children whose cases are in no way similar to that of the injured child into a system that churns out walking wounded four times out of five.

There are better solutions:

New York law says certain professionals must report maltreatment when they have "reasonable cause to suspect" it. That's good guidance for everyone.

Create a meaningful appeals process and a reasonable standard of proof before entering someone in a central register. Then a national database would make sense.

Provide concrete help to the families whose poverty has been confused with "neglect," and other assistance to families with real problems but who love their children. Getting those cases out of the system is the only way workers will have time to find the next Xctasy Garcia before it's too late.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va.