Neglecting what matters in neglect deaths

Following up on last week’s blog, the new one below again looks at a recently released national report aimed at “eliminating” – not just reducing but completely ending – child abuse and neglect fatalities in the United States.  This new blog starts by touching on what’s going on in Hennepin Country, and Minnesota more generally, in regards to such dreadful matters.  So as to leave no doubt about what I see as one of the biggest, albeit almost inevitably ignored causes of child abuse and deaths, I will once again assert that there is no way – none – to dramatically reduce assaults on babies and older children unless we first dramatically reduce America’s massively high rates of family fragmentation.  If you’re tired of my making this imperative case, which I’ve been doing for decades, consider yourself alerted.    (If you’re  so disposed, also feel free to consider this a trigger warning.) 

Reporter Brandon Stahl had another important article in the Star Tribune this past Sunday (May 29) about child abuse in Minnesota.  “A dramatic rise in reported child abuse in Hennepin County,” his piece opened up, “is overwhelming child protection workers, filling up foster homes and shelter beds, and in extreme cases forcing children to stay with abusive parents, according to county officials and records.”

A few paragraphs later Stahl wrote about how Hennepin County “is on track to get 20,000 abuse reports this year, an increase of 2,500 over 2015.”  Just ponder those numbers for a moment.

The increase, he noted, follows major changes over the last two years that have directed Minnesota counties to “more aggressively intervene to safeguard children from abuse and neglect.”  Much of the article is about the hurried and painful situations child protection workers are facing (in part) because of the larger caseloads, and how, for example, 25 Hennepin County child protection workers have quit over the last year.  And perhaps even more tellingly, how 26 have “voluntarily demoted themselves.”  All this, despite more dollars allocated for hiring more men and women for the job.

Before going on, let the record show that I fully appreciate how difficult, often to the point of impossible, demands on child care workers are.  And that this would be the case even if they were not currently working an average of 18 cases at a time, nearly double what a state task force (cited immediately below) recommended in a final report in March 2015.

You may recall that it was Stahl who broke a story in August 2014 about Eric Dean, a four-year-old boy in Northwestern Minnesota who died despite the fact that child protection workers had known about the dangers he faced.  Demonstrating that this was not a rare event, Stahl also reported that more than fifty children, whose imperilments were likewise known by child protection officials, had died over the previous decade.  Mortal failures like these led to the appointment of a task force by Gov. Mark Dayton, the “Governor’s Task Force on the Protection of Children,” originally chaired by former Chief Justice Kathy Blatz and former commissioner of Human Services Lucinda Jesson.  Dayton charged the panel with no less than making certain nothing like that ever happened again.

That panel made many useful suggestions, starting with its focus on what Hennepin and presumably other counties are now doing:  Seeking to more effectively protect kids by intervening “more aggressively.”  Still, to the best of my knowledge, the task force has never published or otherwise released or uttered a single word about family fragmentation.  This is a denial of reality.

This brings us to the other commission, the one writ nationally with the Utopian name, “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.”  Not just radically reduce abuse and neglect deaths, the Commission’s goal is to end them completely.  If only.  Its dozen members were appointed by President Obama and congressional leaders of both parties, and after some lobbying I was invited to speak at one of its hearings, last July, just outside Madison, Wisconsin.

Needless to say, I talked about the ties between child abuse and death on the one hand, and high rates of family fragmentation on the other.   I was the first witness to do so after 13 months of hearings.  The Commission, as opposed to its Minnesota counterpart, wound up devoting at least a few sentence fragments about fragmentation early in its recently released report, but I haven’t found anything stronger so far in its 167 pages.  If I’ve missed something, my apologies.

Which is not to say the report isn’t helpful, even compelling in various ways.  Here’s a portion of the “Letter From the Chairman” by David Sanders, who I first met when he was in charge of child protection efforts in Hennepin County a long time ago:

“When I was a child welfare director . . . we never discussed strategies to prevent these deaths.  Our priority was simply to manage the crisis.  As my fellow Commissioners and I traveled the country over the past two years, we found that this conversation is beginning to change. . . .

“If we as a nation do nothing different to prevent child abuse and neglect fatalities, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 U.S. children will die from maltreatment in 2016, [again] in 2017, and beyond.  I know this because these numbers have remained constant for many years.”

As reflected in the surprisingly large range of children projected to die annually because of maltreatment – 1,500 to 3,000 – collecting accurate data on such deaths has been difficult.  The report makes (what appear to be) solid recommendations about more effectively collecting and comprehending data from many and disparate agencies and other sources.  And as to be expected, Commissioners make good cases for the kinds of recommendations regarding leadership, accountability, coordination and the like that reports like this always make.

Also unsurprisingly, though sadly, the report is wanting in a chapter titled “Reducing Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths in Disproportionately Affecting Communities.”  It opens in this unexceptional way:

“Early on, the Commission was struck by the stunningly high rates of child maltreatment deaths among African American families.  We heard testimony around the racial inequity that occurs in the child welfare system – as well as many other public systems – and we endeavored to explore the disparities between child welfare interventions and outcomes for children of color as compared with those of white children. . . . [A]lthough African American children are approximately 16 percent of the child population nationally, they make up 30 percent of the child abuse and neglect fatalities.”

I surely recognize how sensitive all this is.  But the fact remains that while there are at least 21 references in the chapter to words and terms such as “racism,” “racial inequity,” “implicit bias,” and “systemic bias,” there are exactly zero references to words and ideas such as “marriage,” “fatherlessness,” “family breakdown,” and the new term of art I’ve been using, “family fragmentation.”  This is not only intellectually empty, it’s also dangerous, as about 70 percent of all African American children come into this world outside of marriage, with corresponding rates at about 30 percent for whites, 50 percent of Hispanics, and 40 percent for the nation overall.

All of which leads to three questions.

Is it possible to seriously address child abuse and neglect fatalities in Minnesota and the United States if we continue ignoring numbers and facts like these, regardless of the group of Americans considered?

Is it possible to safely ignore reams of research demonstrating how children do better – including staying alive – in homes where their mothers and fathers live under the same roof?

Or more graphically, is it possible to safely ignore how boys and girls often become confused and damaged when their parents’ new boyfriends and girlfriends move, not just in and out of their beds, but also in and out of their kids’ unsettled lives?

Answers.  You know what they are.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder and American Experiment Senior Fellow.  His most recent book is Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.