Guest post by Judge James Seals.
The death of a child at the hands of a caregiver, someone a child trusts, is indeed one of our community’s most tragic events. It’s even more tragic when the child is under the watch of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), but it will continue to happen as long as humans have the capacity to make mistakes – which is always.
Child protection system professionals, like physicians, airline pilots, builders, and police officers, to name some, make mistakes which can directly or indirectly cause the loss of human life. Their duties require them to gather information, process it, exercise judgment, reach conclusions and make decisions – all human functions – usually under some measure of situational stresses and the pressures of time. With risky endeavors, having insufficient information, or lack of time to consider all the information, or drawing an erroneous conclusion can lead to bad decisions which in turn can cause a death or other tragedy. Expecting zero deaths in professions where human judgment and high risk intersect every day is a fool’s wish.
Rather than pass judgment and sentence on DCF on the few bits of anecdotal evidence gleaned from the media – which covers less than 1% of all cases handled – the better response is to ask whether the child protection system is learning from mistakes made, and how. As a veteran of 15 years in the child protection system, my answer is yes, but I must quickly add that learning from mistakes will not guarantee that child mortality by abuse will always decrease over a given period of time. Every day the child protection system encounters new, different and increasingly bizarre ways that parents and caregivers manage to endanger their children. If child abuse and neglect were stationary targets, then systemic improvements would consistently reduce child abuse and neglect. Child endangerment, however, is and always will be a moving target pursued by humans who, no matter how competent, will always fall short of perfection. The best we can hope for is a steady downward trend over the long term.
The child protection system, which includes our legislature (policy), the courts (oversight and final decision-making), and the child welfare agencies (investigations and case management), is constantly searching for new and better evidence-based best policies and practices to prevent child maltreatment, to ensure child safety and to improve families’ capacities to safely and competently parent their children.For example, investigations now go far beyond just focusing on the alleged maltreatment to information gathering on surrounding circumstances, child functioning, adult functioning, general parenting practices and general discipline practices within the family under investigation. This enables system professionals and courts to make better safety-related decisions right from the start of the case; it improves the system’s capability to assess and control the dangers to vulnerable children through safety planning; and it helps caregivers through targeted case planning to improve family functioning by removing or reducing the threats to child safety.
Costly mistakes are most likely made out in the field where system workers come face to face with offending parents and victim children. Throughout Florida there are many well qualified, well trained, passionately motivated workers out in the field. However, the turnover rate of these key players in child safety and welfare is very high. The good ones get promoted out of the field or move on to better paying, or less stressful jobs in other careers. The ill-suited are either terminated or resign. High turnover in field personnel is the incubator of error. Even the best child protection system available, staffed at the higher echelons with the best leaders and experts, will always underperform without a stable, qualified, motivated cohort of investigators and case workers at their command.
Constant and diligent efforts at controlling risks and dangers will never eliminate the human capacity to err. Regrettably, airplanes will continue to crash, bridges will collapse, brakes will fail, parents will abuse children, and people will die. That’s life, pure and simple. I’m not suggesting we look upon child abuse with resignation or acceptance, nor am I suggesting we throw away accountability. I’m advocating for responsible, well-informed, constructive accountability which asks the right questions instead of making the same old ill-informed, ill-advised, illogical demands.
We can begin by acknowledging that Florida’s child protection system is blessed with many great generals and colonels, but it is also plagued by high turnover and low morale among the troops. Not taking adequate care of the troops may well be the worst mistake of all. Why this is happening is one of those right questions to ask.