City Limits: Limits of Protection: Can Mayor’s Push Reduce Child Abuse Deaths?

In the first two months of 2014, news broke in the city of the deaths of 4-year-old Myls Dobson and 2-year-old Kevasia Edwards, one allegedly tortured and killed by a caretaker after her father went to jail, the other allegedly killed by her mother. Both children’s families had already had extensive contact with the child welfare system, although Myls’ case had been closed a year before his death.

Following Myls’ death, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the commissioner for New York’s Children’s Services, Gladys Carríon, announced a plan for a public service campaign encouraging all New Yorkers to report child abuse and neglect to the state central registry, suggesting in so doing that more child protective investigations were the key to preventing other children from suffering like Myls and Kevasia had.

In truth, more children have not died in 2014 than in previous years. By mid-November 2014, there were 88 deaths of children previously known to the system or reported to the system for investigation after their deaths, on par with the 93 such deaths in 2012 and 2013. The majority of such deaths are ruled accidental.

But the stories that made the news were painful and shocking to read, and gave the impression of a sudden spike in child fatalities. Following Myls and Kevasia deaths, in October the story broke of 3-year-old Jeida Torres, who was allegedly beaten by her stepfather and died in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, followed less than a week later by 4-year-old Linayjah Meraldo, allegedly beaten by her mother in a homeless shelter in Queens.

Again, politicians lamented that if only child protective services had been called in, Jeida and Linayjah could have been saved. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and State Sen. Kevin Parker proposed legislation that would expand mandated reporting of child maltreatment to include shelter workers, while on November 1, ACS released the first of three public service campaigns aimed at increasing child safety. The subway posters started with reasons people might offer for not making a call to report suspicions of abuse or neglect—”It’s Not My Business”; “I Don’t Want to Get Involved”; “But What If I’m Wrong?”—and ended with the admonition: “Isn’t a Reason to Stay Silent.”

Implicit in the campaign’s message is the idea that even if you, the teacher, the doctor, the neighbor, aren’t sure what’s going on behind a family’s closed doors, there are experts who can figure it out.

Child welfare statistics, however, suggest just how hard it is for “child protective specialists,” as the city calls them, to assess a child’s safety risk, with some children removed from unsafe situations or left at home safely, but others taken from their families who shouldn’t be, or left in danger.

They suggest, as well, that even in the best of circumstances, investigations cannot predict all child fatalities, and expecting them to is likely to increase the fear in poor neighborhoods of color where investigations are pervasive—and amplify the trauma of unwarranted removals—without decreasing the number of children who ultimately die.


Decisions amid doubts

When one looks more closely at child protective statistics, the picture that emerges is of a decision-making process that is rife with uncertainty.

On the one hand, statistics that track how often families are reported to the statewide abuse and neglect hotline tell the story of families subjected to repeat investigations, seemingly without any forward momentum: Almost a third of families that were investigated for child abuse and neglect in New York City between January and May 2013 had four or more prior reports, according to a 2013 ACS Strategic Management Report.

In January 2012, then-Public Advocate de Blasio issued a review of 75 child fatality reports from 2011, 20 percent of which were determined to be homicides. In his review, de Blasio found that families in which fatalities occurred had, on average, five prior reports to the state central registry, with four families reported over 15 times—suggesting that even after more than a dozen investigations, investigators may still not be able to predict which children will ultimately prove to be in mortal peril.

Academics call it decision-making under uncertainty. It’s what happens when a child protective worker goes to a home and can’t figure out if the repeated calls by a former spouse alleging child maltreatment are legitimate cries for help or the revenge strategy of an angry ex-. It’s the confusion a worker feels when she faces a young couple in the heat of anger and doesn’t know if they need to be referred to counseling, or made to separate to protect the children from a pattern of domestic violence that’s likely to escalate. It’s the uncertainty a worker feels when she sees that children have no beds, and doesn’t know whether to label it neglect, or poverty.

“In cases of child deaths, there are investigations which often find red flags,” says David Lansner, a civil rights lawyer and former co-chair of New York State Citizens Review Panel for Child Protective Services. “But there are hundreds of cases that have those same red flags that don’t result in a death.”

On the other hand, many families are separated by child protective investigations every year without just cause. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nationwide approximately 40 percent of children removed from their homes on an emergency basis—or about 85,000 children a year—are later returned without a finding of abuse or neglect. New York City has made major reductions in the number of children removed on an emergency basis—down from 73 percent of removals in 2009. Still, in the first ten months of this year, 40 percent of children removed from their homes were removed without court approval.

Sometimes emergency removals are made because children truly are in imminent danger. But other times, advocates for parents and children say, emergency removals are made out of fear of what would happen to the child, the worker and the agency if a child was left in a home and something terrible happened, without adequate weight given to the devastating impact even short-term removals can have on children.

“Even after just a short removal,” says Caitlin Becker, supervising social worker at The Bronx Defenders, which represents parents accused of abuse and neglect in Bronx Family Court, “our clients tell us that their children are not the same kids. They’re more withdrawn, more timid, they’re not as playful. They have trouble in school and behavior problems they never had before.”

Dawn Post, co-borough director of the Children’s Law Center in Brooklyn, adds that “once a child is removed, the momentum of the case often means it takes a long time before we can get that child home. In the meantime, children are terrified. They have no idea what’s going to happen to them.”

Other times, removals can have more severe consequences, as in the case of Poseidon Quinones, 3, who was allegedly beaten to death this November by his grandmother’s boyfriend in his paternal grandmother’s home, where ACS had placed him after removing him from his mother after she was arrested during a fight with Poseidon’s father. At other times, it can leave children vulnerable to the kind of maltreatment the system wanted to protect them from in the first place. According to a report by the City Council, there were 2,165 reports of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2013 made on behalf of children in foster care—or one report for roughly every five children—with 31.5 percent of those reports substantiated.


By Rachel Blustain

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