Keeping Kids Safe

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

This is an awful story: Four young girls - ages 5 to 17 - found dead in their D.C. home, and their mother is charged with the murders. As if that wasn't enough, the bodies had been in the home, decomposing, for at least 15 days and possibly as long as several months. It's impossible to say why a parent would do something like this, but investigators now want to know how it could happen, and how no one noticed. Neighbors feel guilty, the mayor fired a handful of child welfare workers, and a social worker at the school one of the girls used to attend says she tried twice to get the city to check up on the kids. Obviously, in the end it's up to parents to protect their children, but when that fails, who's responsible for keeping kids safe? What happens when you report child abuse? And, how do you investigate such a sensitive issue? We'll talk with a former investigator and a school nurse about how they try to keep kids safe.



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As a forensic nurse and individual who deals with this issue in my work, we the adults are the last line of defense for children. I believe if the thought crosses your mind regarding child abuse you must report. Children are our future and ignoring the problem is saying who cares about tomorrow.

Sent by Melodie Brooks | 2:43 PM | 1-15-2008

If you ever have second thoughts about whether to report or not, report. Most states have safe guards in case you're wrong, and if you're right it could save a life. When I was a child my dad confronted my babysitter who always kept one of her kids hidden and wrapped up even in the summer. He told her that if he saw it again he'd report her. The next day, the cops stopped us at the door to her place. She had raped and killed the girl and my father always regretted not reporting. Her other kid was taken away and I lost my first childhood friend and have had trouble trusting people ever since. Please report suspected abuse.

Sent by Jason | 3:17 PM | 1-15-2008

I'm an elementary teacher, and several times when fellow teachers and I have wanted to report truancy, school district officials have discouraged us from reporting it because DCFS so rarely investigates. I have even had social workers say reporting truancy is useless. What can a teacher do to reach out?

Sent by Amanda | 3:18 PM | 1-15-2008

I have a habit of standing up to abuse directed to me or others. I find there's a Pavlovian response of fear that seems to attach to the messenger; in other words, I am the one who gets ostracized for speaking out.

Sent by Ruby the Resourceress | 3:19 PM | 1-15-2008

Since 1995, I have had *two* coworkers enter this hell of child protective services. One was a single dad with a 12-year-old son who had to be a latchkey kid for two hours every afternoon. An elderly neighbor reported that, and child protective services was all over him for the next two years, threatening to take his son away from him. He was a professional scientist, his son was absolutely trustworthy and fine at home (he did his homework in the afternoons), but because there had been a call and because it was an upper-mid family, there was endless checking up, threats and essentially harassment from the child protective people. They were struggling financially because of the divorce settlement, so the father couldn't afford to pay for after-school care, but if you are familiar with the free after-school programs in large northeastern urban areas, the boy was much safer and happier coming home than going to one of them. The child protective services enforcement seems arbitrary - they allow situations like the one in DC to fester, but they pummel a single custodial dad. Second case: a coworker in my last job nearly lost his 4-year-old child when a daycare worker made a report on a bruise. It was two years of hell for the man, a very gentle and caring father, and his wife, as the child protective people refused to believe the provenance of the bruise and continued to harass them. They initially took the child away for nearly 48 hours while they investigated the report, which was horrifying and scary for both the child and the parents. This kind of overreaction may be why people are reluctant to report; and then we hear these horrific stories of child protective services never intervening - it makes no sense at all to those of us who have watched people go through this kind of zealous enforcement. On a tangent, when my son is wrestling his dad and getting tickled, his screams shake the house, and you have to listen pretty carefully to determine that these are screams of glee rather than just screams. And if someone reported screams and *we* wound up with a policeman at our door, I am wondering whether they would recognize that there was no "bad situation" involved, or whether we would go through the same kind of ominous monitoring.

Sent by Helen | 3:30 PM | 1-15-2008

As an ER pediatrician, my obligation is clear: I report EVERY time I have a suspicion. The dilemma is when the non-primary caretaker, such as an aunt or grandmother, makes a claim of neglect to me, usually related to lifestyle (the mother is partying all night and smoking dope) and there is nothing on my exam that raises my suspicions. There may be a secondary motive, based on a feud between the parent and the reporting adult. In these cases I encourage the person to report directly to Social Services and stay out the middle. Then I wonder if I avoiding my duties.

Sent by Jim Ledbetter | 3:31 PM | 1-15-2008

I am a father of two girls ages 12 and 16 who lives with my ex wife who has other children in her current marriage and i notice a little neglect in the home is not clean her younger children her 2 year old and 3 year old have bee not clean i reported her several times but all i get is that they will check up on her never food in the house all of this is happing why her new husband is away in Iraq

Sent by san antonio | 3:35 PM | 1-15-2008

I have a student that is in the 4th grade. She is a wonderfully bright and kind child. She is about 4'4 and at this moment is 212 lbs. This was as of two months ago. She was recently checked for hearing and vision and gained yet again. Mom says it's simply because "She was a big baby" and that the whole family is large. To me, this is a form of child abuse in it's own form. Can I do anything to help this child as her teacher because mom won't do anything at all. Thanks.

Helpless in Missouri

Sent by Mark Ciccone | 3:36 PM | 1-15-2008

My wife noticed some bruises on her best friend's 5 year old niece. When she asked the little girl what happened she said that her 8 year old brother, who had a pair of heavy work boots on, had kicked her. She also said that her parents encouraged them to fight each other to settle their disagreements. The parents were young and irresponsible and seemed more intent on buying toys for themselves then caring for the kids. My wife called Children's Services and reported the couple. They had to sit down with the social worker and explain their actions. Well the person who bore the brunt of this was my wife's girlfriend. The family blamed her for "ratting" out her brother and sister in law. The couple subsequently moved out of state and out of the supervision of the state. My wife's girlfriend came from an abusive and dysfunctional family and I guess that this was just a bad example of passing on bad to no parenting skills.

Sent by Tony Cardone | 3:38 PM | 1-15-2008

I have not listened to the whole show so I do not know if anyone has touched on this yet. Everyone has talked about kids not wanting to get their parents in trouble, but for me at least, I was more scared of what a foster home would be like or where they would take me. When you are little it is frightening to think about going somewhere like that. Some foster homes and parents are no better and I think that is an issue that needs to be addressed too.

Sent by sarah | 3:42 PM | 1-15-2008

I am a survivor of a system that failed me. My friend and I were both raped by my step-father. My stepfather followed that by doing an abortion on me in the bathtub. I was removed from the school by the system because of the lies that were told and the threats that I was not to speak or things would be worse in my situation and also to my brothers and sisters.. At my new school I was interviewed by state DCFS in the office of the principal and also my school counselor. Because of the way that my mother and step father had initially addressed my new school about my reason for transferring I was not interviewed properly. In fact, my mother specifically told the school to call immediately if I was asked by anyone to speak. I knew that if I said too much things would get worse--but my eyes were begging for help. Later my younger sister began to be sexually molested by him. I don't believe that teachers and administrators are educated enough to know when interacting with a child that things are very wrong in their lives, also I think that more education should be done for students to help them to know when to help their friends. And third I believe that as a society we should not be embarrassed to just ask the really hard questions, in defense of our very best commodity, our children.

Sent by stacie lawrence | 3:44 PM | 1-15-2008

Without a doubt, when and where abuse and neglect occur, children must be protected. The lead on this issue must come not from public institutions such as schools, but from parents - for the benefit of not only those unfortunate minority of children that are in fact in need of protection, but to also protect the fundamental rights and relationships of parents and families. We need Civil Rights level legislation to address these matters.

Sent by Tony Valerio | 3:46 PM | 1-15-2008

I agree with Tony Valerio, that parents and families need protecting, it is a failure to the fundamental character of a family when mistakes are made and children and parents suffer from it. But the critical issue that must be addressed is that we have spent so much time protecting parents and adults at the expense of our nations children that abuse is perpetuating through generations, as suggested by Tony Cardone. I commented that we must defend our very best commodity, as if children can be used for trade, but isn't that just what we are their future by not addressing the hard facts. I believe that children are a treasure, and therefore we must address the failures in the system immediately. We may just find out that in doing so we protect our next generation, and maybe save the lives of some child whose only potential is in being next weeks news story.

Sent by stacie lawrence | 3:56 PM | 1-15-2008

The reason the system fails these kids is because they're too busy wasting time and resources on non-cases like mine.

I am a disabled Army veteran, and my second child was born in February 2007 with a heart condition. I was under a lot of stress while he spent three weeks in intensive care, and then the adjustment period when he came home. Six weeks later, I was exhausted, and had a panic attack. I also suspected that I might have postpartum depression, so I went to a private mental health facility because I wanted to talk to someone (the crisis hotline wouldn't talk to me). The intake worker there offered my husband and me "emergency respite care" so that we could get some sleep. We agreed, thinking that it would help. Instead, my 3 year old and my then-2 month old were put into foster care, where they spent the next 8 months.

The agency claimed that my husband and I neglected our children solely because I was allegedly "bipolar," my husband was allegedly "depressed," because the baby had a heart condition, etc. They never conducted an investigation, and they did not have any physical proof (if they had talked to the pediatrician, he would have told them that the children were in fact well cared for).

The agency got this information from the intake worker at the behavioral health facility (without our permission or a court order, I might add), who told them word-for-word everything I had related in confidence. Then, they accepted it at face value as "proof," even though the woman did not hold any kind of a professional license.

We each had a psychological evaluation, with the results saying that we were normal, and even though I had a history of mild mental health issues, I was in full remission. The evaluator also said that my husband did not have any mental health conditions.

Nevertheless, it's been eight months since the children were put into foster care, and we have not even had a disposition hearing yet.

In the meantime, our infant son has spent most of his life away from my husband and me, and our 3-year-old has developed severe separation anxiety. I am afraid to actually go and get help in the future if I need, for fear that something like this might happen again.

What bothers us the most is that we have no recourse for what happened. The intake worker does not get punished for releasing our confidential health information because she supposedly is protected by that ridiculous "mandated reporter" law, and the agency doesn't get sanctioned because they don't have anybody policing them.

I was the one who went and asked for help, and I ended up getting punished.

If the agencies would spend more time on the real problems, maybe cases like the one in Washington, DC, would happen less often.

How do we as a society change these practices?

Sent by Amy Hussar | 4:32 PM | 1-15-2008

Reporting after the fact isn't really going to help. Kids want to go back to even the most hideously abusive parents. It is instinctual. Also, we have a man in a sandwich sign walking down our city's main thoroughfare begging for foster parents. Mandatory parenting classes instead of taking the child away is the only answer.

Sent by Cari Lendrum | 5:50 PM | 1-15-2008

Hello Blog of the Nation.
I am going through a situation with my Step Daughter were we suspect her biological father of abusing her. Her mother and I feel like the system is fighting us on every turn DCF is very hesitant to get involved and at best seem to not care and at worst they are working against us. We keep trying to remind everyone that we need to help this young child and at lest make an effort to find out what is going on. But for now all we are getting from the system is disinformation and people saying their hands are tied.
We have gone to the privet sector Lawyers and mental heath professionals but this takes a lot of time and money. A lot of people don't have the ability to do pay for these services, as it is we are accumulating debt trying to give our little girl a voice. It seems that the system is set to error on the side of caution for the accused not the victim.

Sent by Shane | 9:06 PM | 1-15-2008

The law should be changed in this way. If you look at the budgets of enforcement, the call and not having to prove should be changed to: If you call and there is no abuse, then you should get a bill from the state for the expense. If you don't pay up, they should suspend driver's licence until paid. This will save the state lots of money and put it's workers to valuable work instead of listening to gossup.

Sent by Richard Moore | 1:33 AM | 1-16-2008

This is truly a an awful tragedy. The problem is we have a flawed system. It will never be fixed. I am a foster parent now in the kinship navigator program. I know first hand how overwhelmed these workers case loads are. That is something that will never be corrected due to the rapidly growing amount of cases that are added daily. I pray for all involved in this tragedy. There will be a lot of finger pointing, political motivation for campaign gaining etc... There just isn't enough help,and programs out here. The system, schools, neighbors, and family are all to blame for this tragedy. We live in sad times because the average person doesn't want to get involved. Everyone thinks there time is too precious to help a person in need. Let's face it the only time you hear about folks donating a hand is during the christmas and new year holiday season. And Celebrating adopting foreign children for the limelight. Don't get me wrong all children deserve a childhood, to be loved, and to laugh. I just think we need to start at home first. Let's clean our back yards up first before we go in our neighbors back yard. Most do it only for the tax write offs. We hear of these tragedies in most states. The same thing normally happens there will be a shift in the case loads, about 50 new hires, but the 50 hires will go down to 25 after 3-4 months because of the budget. You will have the 25 new hires burnt out in about 2 months and then we are right back to where we started at. A tragedy waiting to happen. Everyone is up in arms now when the truth is we should have been apologizing, crying and making speeches while these poor babies where living this terrible life. So the next time we see a mother who appears to be overwhelmed offer a helping hand instead of criticizing her for the way the children may or may not look. It takes a village people not video games, toys, computers etc.. to raise our children. We need more resources, volunteers, and workers who are ready for work not run their personal errands on company time to make this work. As for this mother jail is not the answer. A Mental institution perhaps, no more children in her care. Sounds like she had her mental health issues long before she had children.

Sent by Denise | 2:50 PM | 1-17-2008

I very much sympathize with the experiences of the two parents as related by Helen. Several years ago I had to leave my son alone every day in the summer because I couldn't afford child care; I was terribly worried that some busybody neighbor was figure out that he was alone every day and report me. Many of Helen's comments are well taken, for example the screams of glee being mistaken for screams of terror by someone passing by. Responsible, loving parents should not have to fear the social services agency that is supposed to have childrens' best interests at heart. Similarly, my heart goes out to Amy for the experience she is still living, according to her account of how the system punished her for asking for help, and then has not had to assume responsibility for its error. I assume it still believes it has made no such error. It reminded me of some thirty years ago in Iowa when a baby with some kind of brittle bone disease was taken from his parents for suspected abuse, I believe for several months, before the truth was sorted out - that abuse was not the reason for his broken limb - and he was returned. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are repeated news reports every few months from all over the county, of terrible, ongoing, deep-seated cruelty being done to children, which somehow slips through the cracks until undeniable evidence comes to light, usually a hideous death. Is there a state ANYWHERE in the country that has a properly functioning child protective agency that separates family difficulties like Amy's from true abuse? I would like to know if anyone out there knows how to really correct an inept system that so often seems so clueless about some horrific behavior going on (and on and on) while fixing its sights on some non-issue, such as Amy's, and refusing to let go. Anyone?

Sent by kate | 9:55 AM | 1-20-2008