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Blog, In the News

Blue-ribbon commission collects ideas to save children in abusive homes

September 8, 2015

By Cheryl Wetzstein
The Washington Times, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015

The grisly tragedies mount: A Missouri mother has been charged with beating her one-year-old daughter to death, and a Kentucky couple are accused of criminal abuse after the mother dropped their newborn while high on drugs, resulting in the baby’s death.

In Houston, six children who had been returned to their home after a short stint in foster care were buried recently along with their parents, who were slain by another parent in a domestic dispute.

For decades, the nation has heard alarms about the hundreds of innocent lives lost to abuse and neglect each year, usually at the hands of one or both parents. But despite reforms, legislation, funding battles and finger-pointing, states still struggle to ensure child safety.

In fact, the death toll is about 1,500 children a year — about four a day, the federal government says — making maltreatment a bigger killer than cancer among children younger than 15.

The tide may be about to turn, however. A blue-ribbon commission is working to gather fresh answers about how to stop such child fatalities. What it is learning may lead to critical changes in child welfare operations — and save lives.

“I do believe that we have some things that are just very different because people haven’t had the opportunity to put things together on a national level,” said clinical psychologist David Sanders, chair of the 12-member federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

The panel is expected to provide recommendations in March, based on more than a dozen meetings it has held around the nation, including a recent one in New York.

Despite wide agreement that there is no simple answer to prevent child fatalities, there are precedents for success, said Sanders, executive vice president for Casey Family Programs and former director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

About 40 percent of tips about vulnerable children to Child Protective Services are “screened out” — often for lack of evidence — and the agency takes no further action, Sanders said.

However, research shows that that group of children “is among the most vulnerable for later fatality,” he said.

A proposed improvement would be to require that every maltreatment tip about a child younger than one  generate a prompt visit.

“Somebody needs to see that child,” said Sanders, noting the vast majority of child fatalities involve some of the youngest.

Another tactic would be to offer social programs, such as those for new parents or “safe sleeping,” earlier than later.

An additional area for change is cross-communication.

Child Protective Services workers may visit a family, but they won’t know whether police came the night before for a domestic violence call or whether the child has been missing well-baby appointments, Sanders said. When information like this isn’t shared, it can have “deadly consequences,” he said.

“There’s no reason in the 21st century that there is an inability to share information,” he said, noting that the information gap has been cited “in state after state after state.”

Inadequate investigations
There is no doubt that missing or misdirected information about a family in crisis has contributed to children being killed, according to media investigations.

The Miami Herald last year found 477 child fatalities in Florida over six years. In one case in which the mother and children were killed, the death review found that neighbors and others familiar with the estranged husband were not interviewed about the family.

In another case, social workers who checked on a cockroach-infested house saw a bug problem more than a mental health or drug abuse problem. That was a fatal mistake, the Herald reported, as several years and multiple child welfare visits later, three girls were found malnourished and their 10-month-old brother, Milo Rupert, was found dead. The squalid home was infested with thousands of cockroaches.

Milo’s father and mother have since been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for his death.

The Herald series criticized ineffective solutions — such as parents’ “safety plans” for their children that went unenforced — as well as the state agency’s desire to promote “family preservation” or keep troubled families together as much as possible.

Florida officials have since changed course, and now families — and their histories — are being scrutinized more closely, and the numbers of children removed from homes have risen sharply, the Orlando Sentinel reported last month.

Meanwhile, the vast majority — about 86 percent — of child fatalities occur in families “not known” to the local child welfare system, according to the annual Child Maltreatment reports issued by the children’s bureau in the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

This is part of the reason why solutions are so elusive: It is difficult to know when, where and how to intervene in a family’s life, the blue-ribbon child fatality commission said.

Communication breakdowns
In Houston, the Aug. 8 killings of the Jackson family were so shocking that a child welfare judge issued a statement to explain his actions regarding the family.

In 2013, Valerie Jackson, who was estranged from husband Dwayne Jackson and living again with David Ray Conley, the father of her eldest child, lost custody of the children after one of her young children was found walking alone on the streets.

When Valerie Jackson got an alarm system and agreed to parenting and counseling classes with Conley, Juvenile Court Judge Glenn Devlin said he had no reason to keep them in state care and let them return home.

“Most importantly,” Devlin said in a statement issued after their deaths, Child Protective Services “never stated that there was a belief the children were in immediate physical danger from any person or parent.”

Devlin added that Conley’s history of domestic violence, jail time and threats of harm against Valerie Jackson were not legally sufficient to keep the children in foster care. “I can’t base removal on the criminal history of parties,” the judge wrote.

According to media reports, Valerie Jackson broke off her relationship with Conley sometime this year and resumed her relationship with her husband, Dwayne Jackson. She reportedly changed the locks on their Houston home.

When Conley, 49, discovered he was locked out of his former home, he supposedly planned his revenge. On Aug. 8, he entered the home through an unlocked window, handcuffed most of the family members and then fatally shot Dwayne Jackson; Honesty Jackson, 11; Dwayne Jackson Jr., 10; Caleb Jackson, 9; Trinity Jackson, 7; Jonah Jackson, 6; and Nathaniel Conley, 13.

Media reports said Conley shot Dwayne Jackson and the children in front of Valerie Jackson before killing her. He later exchanged gunfire with police at the house before surrendering to them.

Lack of shared information may have doomed the family because police didn’t immediately learn of Conley’s violent history.

Earlier that morning, Valerie Jackson texted her mother, “911 911 911 911,” and said “DVD has gun,” a reference to Conley.

Police knocked at the door several times during the day but didn’t enter the house until evening, when they spotted the body of a child through a window.

An earlier entry may have saved lives. After their first visit, Valerie Jackson sent a final garbled text to her mother, saying, “Tuhey knck left.”