Failure to protect

We’ve learned a lot about the failures of the local Department of Human Services over the last four days.

Failure is a strong word. But there’s no other way to describe the outcomes of three child-welfare cases at the heart of the Sentinel’s “Failure to Protect” series. In each case, a child known to the child-welfare system died of injuries arising from physical abuse—raising troubling questions about how and why the victims were placed, or allowed to remain, in such precarious home environments.

Each of these tragedies looks like it could have been prevented. Reporters Erin McIntyre and Gabrielle Porter documented the red flags that were overlooked, policies that were violated and the follow-through that didn’t take place.

Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to say after the fact what should or shouldn’t have happened. While the series highlighted some glaring missteps, it also provided valuable context as to why certain decisions were made and revealed the pressure that state and national policies place on case workers.

It would be a grave disservice to take these worst-case scenarios as evidence of systemic incompetence. A gross oversimplification of a complex problem won’t prevent future tragedies from happening. But changes in policy might.


The takeaways


Two of the three children whose placements were profiled in the series died in the homes of relatives who were supposed to protect them. “They died in homes that case workers and judges decided were the best and safest place for them,” today’s front-page story explains. Those decisions were influenced by adherence to a policy known as “kinship placement,” which asserts that children abused or neglected to the point of being removed from their homes are better off with relatives than with strangers.

Research supports this preference. In March 2007, the Center for Law and Social Policy summarized the documented benefits of kinship placements: Children placed with relatives experienced greater stability, fewer behavioral problems and more positive perceptions of their placement than children in non-relative foster care. The summary article noted that children living with relatives are no more likely than children living with non-kin foster parents to experience abuse or neglect after being removed from their homes: “A 1997 study found that non-kin foster parents were twice as likely as licensed kinship foster parents to have a confirmed report of maltreatment. Furthermore, Illinois found that children in kinship foster care are at lower risk for maltreatment than are children in either specialized or non-relative foster care.”

Such findings formed the basis of The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed by President George W. Bush at the end of his second term, which sought to increase opportunities for relatives to step in when a family member’s child has been removed from their home.

This top-down prioritization of kinship contributed to the removal of Angel Place from a non-relative foster home where she was thriving. The child was placed with her biological uncle and his 20-year-old common-law wife who needed a waiver because policy requires foster parents to be 21. Angel didn’t live long enough to celebrate her first birthday. She died as a result of blunt-force trauma, with multiple fractures to her skull.

Today’s concluding story includes observations that Mesa County’s child welfare system could be improved by allowing social workers more flexibility when making placement decisions.

Dan Rubinstein, Mesa County district attorney, is among those who think DHS should have more discretion in conforming to the law prioritizing kinship placement: “I understand the value in a public policy promoting kids being placed with family members,” he said. “I also, as the DA, understand that we often are prosecuting multiple people in a family because sometimes the apple does not fall far from the tree and that is a very delicate balance.”

If Angel Place is the poster child for the shortcomings of a cookie-cutter kinship policy, Lyla Blackwood’s short life serves as a cautionary tale about live-in boyfriends. A single mother with a boyfriend or husband living in the home who is unrelated to her children is a familiar scenario in child-abuse fatalities in Mesa County. In Lyla’s case, unfortunately, awareness of this pattern didn’t correlate with urgency by DHS officials to intervene at the first hint of possible abuse.

Tuesday’s cover story recounted how child-welfare officials reacted to a doctor’s report that the two-year-old had suffered a broken arm. They assigned a five working-day response time to the report. Two days before the deadline, Lyla was dead and her mother’s boyfriend was later arrested on charges of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.

The broken-arm incident was the third occasion in Lyla’s life in which Mesa County’s child welfare department didn’t respond appropriately to reports of child abuse, a state fatality review team determined later.

There are other disturbing dimensions of this case involving the placement of Lyla’s surviving younger sister that we won’t get into here due to space constrains. The most obvious takeaway of Lyla’s story concerns signs of abuse. Her relatives want laws mandating quicker response for injuries like her broken arm.


Where do we go from here?


Veteran foster families with intimate knowledge of the system and the pressures on caseworkers are sympathetic to their challenges. Child welfare is an unforgiving world. When things go right, nobody notices. When things go wrong, the entire system falls under intense public scrutiny.

Right or wrong, it puts DHS officials in a perpetual defensive posture. Tracey Garchar, executive director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services, and his agency’s child welfare managers didn’t shrink from addressing the issues raised in this series. There’s simply no tougher job in the county and we would be remiss in pointing out problems without acknowledging successes.

“There’s a lot of really good stuff happening in Mesa County, and if there wasn’t I wouldn’t want to continue to be a part of it,” said Wilma Hansen, a veteran foster parent who has had more than 70 children come through her home.

State regulations require social workers to do extensive work trying to track down any potential family members who might be eligible to take the children. Even if this wasn’t practiced policy, it would be a practical matter. There aren’t enough certified foster families in the county to receive eligible children.

If giving case workers more discretion in making placements is truly the answer to avoid future tragedies, we’ll need more non-family alternatives.

We shouldn’t dismiss the proven benefits of keeping children with kin. All things being equal – the safety and stability of the home environment and the willingness of the foster parents to be vetted, trained and supported – kinship placements make sense. Currently, kinship consideration seems to outweigh other important factors.

But changing the prioritization of kinship will take legislation or policy directives at the state level. Our hope is that reporting on this uncomfortable topic can be a catalyst for change. Until then, DHS is well aware of its shortcomings. No editorial rebuke can sting as much as losing a child under your watch.


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