Reform of the Child-Welfare System Is Truly a Matter of Life and Death

By Fields, Suzanne | Insight on the News, April 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

Reform of the Child-Welfare System Is Truly a Matter of Life and Death


Fields, Suzanne, Insight on the News


Spring at last! The crocuses have popped through earth hardened by winter, as daffodils, the first tulips and forsythia decorate the landscape, harbingers of even better to come. Children are restless to jump rope and play "boys catch girls" (or "girls chase boys" on the playground or shoot baskets at the hoop nailed above the garage door.

The air is crisp with promise for all the lucky children whose parents guide them with love and discipline. But some children never will enjoy the sun on their faces nor can they look forward to the fun of summer. They are shrouded in darkness, abused or neglected by those responsible for their care.

One such child was David Edwards, whose brief life was snuffed out at 15 months by a mother who suffocated him in his crib. He would become just another statistic making up the 1,200 children killed each year by their parents or surrogate parents if we were not offered a glimpse into the dark shadows behind his death, shadows dancing along a paper trail of misguided good intentions. We mourn David by understanding what went wrong in his short life and hope to spare future victims of abuse and neglect.

"His death was entirely preventable " writes Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island. In The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives, he offers a case study of the failure of the child-welfare system.

Its roots are planted in the Child Welfare Adoption Assistance Act of 1980, which mandates that states make reasonable efforts to keep or reunite children with their biological parents, even when those parents abuse and neglect children. This approach persists in the Family Preservation and Child Protection Reform Act of 1993. Gelles specifically details the impact of these laws and this philosophy in Rhode Island.

"Again and again I encountered tragedies that could have been prevented if only we did not embrace the rigid policy of family preservation and family reunification," he writes. By making family preservation the goal of saving children, child-welfare workers wear blinders; they err on the side of bad parents.

Decriminalization of nonfatal child abuse and neglect is another flaw in the child-welfare law. …

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