Friday, September 16, 2011

the dangers of childhood

I just heard an interview with a New York Magazine writer who did a story about the death of a four year old child who was under the supervision of the Child Protection division of social services. The caseworker and his supervisor were forced to resign after the incident and have subsequently been arrested by the Brooklyn police to stand trial for negligent homicide.

The child's mother is accused of murder and the child's grandmother of manslaughter and now, two social workers are also under arrest.

It was a chilling story, but the author was not unsympathetic toward the supervisor and case worker. Interviewing others in the office she discovered that the two accused social services workers were considered two of the best in the division. Case notes were missing from the computer but other workers admitted they were all weeks behind in entering the notes because of the volume of their case loads. In fact, the conclusions of the writer was that it was a systemic rather than personal failure. The supervisor was alone in a unit that previously had two supervisors and spent much of her days in meetings that all the workers agree are meaningless. The social worker had visited the home five times in the month before the child's death but hadn't had time to transcribe his case notes.

Hundreds of social service workers have protested at the Brooklyn prosecutor's office but the charges have not been dropped.

And a child is dead--betrayed by the system that was designed to keep her safe.

I was a child protection specialist for two years between my studies at Harvard Divinity School and my decision to return to seminary and be ordained. I too lost a child to an inefficient and strained system. This was in the early 70's when the epidemic of child abuse was not so widely known. I was the person who removed children from their homes if I felt they were in eminent danger.

I removed a 4 year old boy and a 3 year old girl from the home of a professional couple. They were doing well in foster care and their burns and bruises were healing. The boy had suffered two broken bones in the previous two years but the hospital hadn't reported it. This was before the days of 'mandated reporters'--people who, by law, must report suspected abuse and neglect. Priest and ministers are 'mandated reporters', for example, along with school teachers and medical professionals.

The children's parents were well off and hired a top flight lawyer. The children's rights were protected by an assistant district attorney for the county. Child abuse cases were not what the assistant d.a. wanted to do and he was lackluster in the best of times. However, up against a tough lawyer, he caved in remarkably and the judge had no choice but to return the children.

I stayed in touch with the family though they sought a restraining order against the Department of Welfare. I went to the d.a.'s office for another order to remove the children and was turned down since that office had been embarrassed in the first hearing.

Two months later, the little boy drowned in the bathtub and I did get his sister out. The mother was tried for manslaughter rather than murder and spent one year in the county jail.

I left to go back to seminary before she was released. After losing Martin, much of the zeal and commitment had drained out of me. I know I did everything I could to protect him, but he was still dead, a victim of the system that was suppose to protect him.

I've never forgotten the experience and how impotent and guilty I felt. I'll carry Martin's memory with me always. Hearing the report from Brooklyn today just brought it crashing back on me.

A nation that doesn't protect its children from the ones who should be protecting them is a blight on the land. When will we ever learn how precious the lives of children are...and how precarious and dangerous the world can be to them?

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.