Wexler: Reforms aided child safety


In an April 10 editorial, the News-Leader speculated that critics "may" say that changes in law and policy following the death of Dominic James placed more emphasis on parental rights than child safety. Such critics "may" say that this "may" have contributed to the death of Kaiden Light.
Should anyone actually say such a thing, that person will be mistaken.
Here are the facts:
FACT: It is impossible to truly measure overall child safety based on the number of deaths of children "known to the system" for a reason for which we all should be grateful: Though each is the worst form of tragedy, the number is so low that it can rise or fall due to random chance. But, just for the record, the number of such deaths in Missouri has declined since the reforms of 2003 and 2004.
FACT: A much more reliable measure of child safety is the percentage of abused children who are re-abused within six months - the measure used by the federal government to evaluate child welfare systems. In the six years from 2003 through 2009, the average for this measure has improved more than 20 percent compared to the three years before -- which is as far back as these data go.
This means the reduction in the number of children taken from their homes in Missouri in recent years improved child safety. That's not really surprising. With workers wasting less time on false allegations, trivial cases and children needlessly taken from everyone they know and love, they have more time to find children in real danger.
FACT: The reductions in the number of children taken from their homes in Missouri did no more than bring the state closer to best practice across the country. Missouri went from taking away children at a rate well above the national average, to taking children at just about the national average rate. Greene County remains above those averages, even when poverty is factored in.
FACT: States that are widely recognized as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe, take proportionately fewer children than Missouri.
Worst of all is any suggestion that we should allow caseworkers to tear apart families based on a "gut feeling." In child welfare, gut feelings tend to be biased. One study found that when caseworkers were given otherwise-identical hypothetical cases they were more likely to say the child was "at risk" if the child was described as black. Combine that with middle-class caseworkers passing judgment on impoverished families and you have a formula for the mass confiscation of children when poverty itself is confused with neglect.
A police officer cannot break down your door, burst into your home arrest you and haul you off to jail just because of a "gut feeling" that you're the child murderer he's looking for. Children are entitled to the same protection against being torn from everyone they know and love.
That's why we are a nation of laws, not digestive tracts.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org.