Rage, review, repeat

Nothing is more disconcerting than a child-protection system that fails, but the predictable bureaucratic response that follows the death of a child in foster care is nearly as unnerving.

A review is conducted. Holes in the system are identified. Recommendations are made. Fingers are crossed that tragedy won’t strike again. But it does, because laws and policies are only as strong as the human frailties fraught within the system.

It’s been 15 months since paramedics found a lifeless 3-year-old Bethannie Johnson inside her Grand Junction home. The little girl was brutalized by her aunt, Shanna Gossett, and her aunt’s girlfriend, Rebecca Wallin. Though there is disagreement about who dealt the fatal blow to Bethannie, it’s indisputable both women inflicted unspeakable abuse upon the child.

In a four-day series last September, The Daily Sentinel chronicled Bethannie’s death and the deaths of two other children who were known to child-welfare caseworkers before they were killed. The series raised troubling questions about how and why the victims were placed — or allowed to remain — in precarious home situations.

Why are we revisiting a child-protection system that didn’t protect these children, a system that let them fall through the cracks, a system that placed them in harm’s way, a system in which it takes more than a year to find out what happened?

Because it’s clear something has to change — and our faith in a government or legislative solution fades with every post-mortem analysis of what went wrong.

Thanks to a story by reporters Erin McIntyre and Gabrielle Porter in last Sunday’s Daily Sentinel, we finally know for certain that the Prowers County caseworkers who placed Bethannie with her unstable aunt knew Gossett was struggling financially and didn’t have a stable home due to domestic violence. Caseworkers here in Mesa County, where Gossett lived with Bethannie, reported to them — through their informal agreement to keep an eye on her — that the situation was unstable and she was living in the battered women’s shelter at one point.

Yet Prowers County caseworkers, who were 450 miles away, left Bethannie in that situation, and ultimately a judge granted permanent guardianship to Gossett in an 11th-hour decision prior to leaving the bench for his retirement.

Six months after the decision was made, Bethannie was dead, beaten to death by Gossett and Wallin, who together initially tried to cover it up.

While they’re both serving 48 years in prison for their roles in the girl’s death, there are other culprits at hand.

Prowers County, the jurisdiction charged with placing Bethannie in a permanent home after her mother relinquished her, and Prowers County Judge Douglas Tallman must bear some responsibility.

The state’s Child Fatality Review Board, which examines cases where children known to the foster-care system die or are involved in egregious incidents of abuse or neglect, reviewed the case. It pointed out the mistakes that were made, referring to some as “missed opportunities” when it was evident that Gossett was struggling, though she refused to get certified as a kinship home to receive compensation for Bethannie’s care.

It made recommendations to monitor more closely cases that involve young children. The board advised that the state start requiring a formal process for “courtesy supervision,” the agreement between counties to be the eyes and ears for each other when children in the system are moved from the counties of their original jurisdiction.

Where is the accountability? Prowers County officials refuse to even acknowledge they were involved in the case. We have no idea if the caseworkers who decided to place Bethannie in this dangerous situation — and left her there, despite the clear warning signs — are still deciding where children should live. At least we know the judge retired so he can’t place any more children in harm’s way.

Impacting the system

Hindsight is always 20/20. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback and express outrage over events that were obviously difficult to spot in real time. Nevertheless, outrage propels us to learn from mistakes and attempt to minimize any chance that the tragedy is repeated.

Perhaps policy tweaks or legislative intervention could require additional scrutiny of risk factors in homes for children 5 and younger. They are the most vulnerable and least capable of protecting themselves.

The state Department of Human Services should require counties to notify each other when a child welfare case moves from one county to another. Better still, child welfare cases should be transferred to the county where the child lives, eliminating communication gaps and establishing better accountability.

Such a change would have a lot of implications, starting with additional expense incurred by the county to whom jurisdiction is transferred. Surely, though, people whose jobs are to protect children can figure out a way to make this happen.

If the state Department of Human Services refuses to move forward with improving itself, state lawmakers should intervene and provide mechanisms to assure that we, as a society, protect those who are too helpless to protect themselves.

But we must remember that the impact of any potential solutions are controlled by the quality of caseworkers. There’s simply no way to account for human nature, errors in judgment, oversights and optimistic assumptions. There’s only so much that can be accomplished from within the system.

However, anyone who is truly outraged that a helpless child could die within the child-protection system has the power to make a difference. Volunteering to be a Court-Appointed Special Advocate is the best place to start and far more effective and accessible than trying to push changes through a political process.

CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children, to make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system or languish in foster homes. Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home.

Other volunteer opportunities, like mentoring foster kids through Big Brothers, Big Sisters or Mesa County Partners, put more level-headed adults in touch with vulnerable populations.

Bethannie Johnson’s sad story demands a response. As we wrestle with establishing accountability and putting procedures in place to plug holes in the system, let’s not forget that any of us can be a difference-maker.


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