In 2012, nearly 1,600 children died in the United States—many as a result of physical abuse, neglectful starvation and malnourishment or careless parenting. This number is shocking in itself; however, what is even more concerning is the fact that a majority of these cases had previous Child Protective Services involvement. CPS knew these children were in danger, yet they were still in guardianship of those who would ultimately be responsible for their untimely death.
All will agree this statistic is quite disturbing, but the tendency is to chalk it up to children slipping through the cracks of the child welfare system. With 1,600 children though, are these cracks in the system or Grand Canyon-size holes? In 2012, there were approximately 19,700 Investigative and Alternative Response workers responsible for completing nearly 1.37 million reports. However, only 39 states were able to report that information. And, more research reveals almost all figures are underrepresented. States are not able to provide accurate numbers due to either shoddy reporting or ineffective regulations warranting appropriate record-keeping.
It’s also important to differentiate these deaths from the deaths of children succumbing indirectly from abuse and neglect—numbers not included in this figure. A child is hospitalized for broken ribs, but then catches an infection. An infant is not being properly cared for and ultimately phenomena takes over. Therefore, these already shockingly high statistics are even higher, and though the excuse of CPS agents being overworked may be somewhat true, there is a foundational issue which needs to be addressed. How are children dying right under our noses, and why aren’t we doing something about it?
How can you explain the death of 10-week-old Ethan Henderson? The baby boy had previously been treated for a broken arm and later died from a brain injury—the result of his father hurling him into a recliner in a fit of rage. In his short little life, protective services received 13 calls warning of the abuse Ethan and his siblings were enduring.
Two weeks after Mattisyn Blaz was born, her father, Matthew, physically assaulted her mother while she was in her arms. CPS made a visit the next day, and eventually Matthew was ordered to take anger management classes. Mattisyn’s mother allowed him back in the house soon after, but this was nothing but a death sentence for the little girl. Matthew “spiked” his two-month-old daughter “like a football.” Mattisyn’s family received a CPS visit six weeks after the first—on the day of the baby’s funeral.
Most likely, the visits to both Ethan and Mattisyn’s families, as well as to most other families with CPS involvement, were made by a slew of workers. Child welfare work is tough, and with high levels of burnout leading to high turnover. We could also point the finger at the cost of providing DHS services. There simply isn’t enough money to go around for an adequate number of workers.
So, yes, in many cases CPS workers are overworked and undertrained, and budgets are tight, but when will we accept that children are not just slipping through the cracks of the child welfare system? These cracks are gaping holes, and we are providing a great disservice to the children who fall into them, but who’s to blame?
Taking a child from their biological family is undoubtedly emotionally traumatic, but isn’t it better than allowing a child to stay in a life-threatening home? Are we placing too much importance on family preservation and parental rights even when the situation directly violates the right of the child?