Six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, whose crack-addicted mother beat her to death in November, is only the latest in a harrowing roll call of children tortured and murdered by parents from whom, despite repeated warnings, New York City child-welfare officials had refused to remove them. Year after year we read the same story, about a child who "fell through the cracks" of a "system that failed her." Why?

These children are casualties of a tragically misguided policy that places the preservation of a biological family ahead of the well-being of children. Federal and state child-welfare laws require social service agencies to reunite children with their biological mothers as soon as possible, even if the mothers have a history of addiction and child abuse. Carrying out this mandate, Family Court judges routinely credit the claims of social workers and Legal Aid lawyers that a few weeks of counseling and some classes in parenting have "rehabilitated" a mother who has repeatedly turned on her child in fury. (See "Compassion Gone Mad.")

Making matters worse, the city's Child Welfare Administration employs woefully underqualified caseworkers, Some commentators blamed Elisa's death on staff cutbacks at CWA, but in truth the problem with the agency's caseworkers is more one of quality than of quantity. City antidiscrimination laws require the agency to hire applicants who pass a simple multiple-choice test and complete just three weeks of classroom training. Once they're n the payroll, regulations make it almost impossible to fire them.

Self-serving state and city bureaucracies use ambiguous federal confidentiality statutes to cover up their own ineptitude. Intra-agency investigations have repeatedly pointed to caseworkers' slow follow-up on abuse complaints and deplorable judgment in making recommendations. But because these investigations are confidential, the agencies escape public accountability.

More stringent hiring policies, better training of caseworkers, and more accountability are all essential. But above all, government must shift its basic purpose. As long as the child-welfare bureaucracy aims to save abusive families rather than to save children, tragedies like Elisa's will continue to recur with horrifying regularity.


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