Between 2014 and 2016, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, fatalities and near-fatalities resulting from child abuse increased by 44 percent. These numbers mirror a nationwide trend. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of nationwide child-maltreatment fatalities shot up from 1,550 to 1,750; they declined slightly in 2017, to 1,720.
Authorities generally blame the drug crisis for this rise. About 38 percent of children in foster care in Pennsylvania were taken from their biological parents for reasons related to parental substance abuse. The report recommends better training of child-care personnel to recognize the signs of child abuse, better parenting education for those who will take care of these children, and an expansion of child-abuse hotlines and other reporting capabilities.
But such proposals presume that we don’t know which children are in danger, and that teachers, doctors, daycare-center operators, and others don’t have the tools to identify child abuse. The truth is that we do know which kids are in danger—we just lack the resolve to remove them from their abusive living situations. “Of the 220 substantiated fatality and near fatality incidents, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the children and/or families were involved with the county children and youth agency prior to or at the time of the incident,” reports the Pennsylvania DHS. “Among the 140 children and/or families known to the agency, 58 [cases] were open at the time of the incident, and the remaining 82 cases had involvement prior to, but not at the time of, the incident.” Most of the children who died and who had been known to the agency had seen their cases closed in the year prior to their deaths. In short: we know these kids. They’re under government surveillance, yet caseworkers are determining that they are safe with their eventual murderers—so safe that they no longer even need contact with child protective services.
Pennsylvania is not alone. Arizona reported that 56 percent of the 79 children who died from maltreatment in 2017 came from families with prior involvement with a child protective-services agency. New Jersey reported that same year that a third of its child-fatality cases involved kids already known to a child-welfare agency.
In his book Out of Harm’s Way, Richard Gelles asks, “If CPS agencies cannot protect the children they already know to be at risk, whom can they protect?” He suggests that the usual reforms resulting from child fatalities—lower caseloads for CPS workers, more money, new leadership—don’t do much for kids in dangerous situations. We need to change how caseworkers make decisions, update agency practices to include data analysis of the sort that the NYPD pioneered, and even apply predictive analytics to identify kids in the most danger.
The discrepancies among Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Arizona in the percentage of serious cases known to authorities suggests that the states are using different standards to determine when children are at risk. It’s clear that some CPS workers should be taking a more aggressive approach. Instead, agencies are ideologically committed to keeping kids with their nuclear or extended families, encouraging higher rates of abuse, neglect, and even fatalities. CPS workers may also be underestimating the extent to which parental neglect driven by substance abuse may endanger children. More than half of the fatalities and near fatalities in Pennsylvania were caused not by violence but other factors, including lack of supervision, delayed medical care, or malnutrition. If CPS workers wait to see bruises and broken bones before they remove a child, they may be too late.
The Pennsylvania report concludes that “it is the responsibility of families, neighbors, professionals, communities and systems to ensure the safety of children.” Most endangered children are coming to the attention of authorities, but our child-welfare system has a long way to go when it comes to protecting them.