Institutionalized Care Center The Child Protective Services (CPS) system is broken and when CPS fails, children pay… often with their lives.  Over 1,000 children die of neglect or torture each year.  While under the care of CPS, studies have shown that children are 600% more likely to die a violent death.  In 2007, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) reported 1,760 child fatalities attributed to child abuse.  Of those, more than half had prior Child Protective Services involvement before their deaths.  Why are our state sponsored child protective services failing to protect our children?

According to Representative Richard Morrissette (Democrat, Oklahoma City), “Our system is broken. The Department of Human Services is a mess. It’s terrible for kids. We still have children dying. We still have children being moved around. The more we ignore the reality of this, our children are going to pay.”

Zahra Baker Case Study

In 2005, Zahra Clare Baker was diagnosed with cancer. Her battle with cancer included required chemo therapies which caused her to lose hearing on both ears and required removal of one of her legs.  Five years later, her single father, Adam Baker, moved the family from Australia to North Carolina, United States in order to be with Elisa Baker, a woman he met on the Internet.  Within months, neighbors and family members were calling social services with allegations of child abuse.  CPS arrived at the home to investigate and question neighbors in order to determine if there was any truth behind the allegations.

“I watched her beat her and tried to stop her,” said former neighbor Karen Young, who filed a complaint against Elisa Baker for threatening to harm her daughter.  Neighbor Kayla Rotenberry confirmed the allegations.  She said she saw Elisa Baker hit Zahara and noted she had bruises on her face and body.  Even family members supported the claims of abuse.  “Zahra was locked in her room, allowed five minutes out a day to eat, that was it,” said Brittany Bentley. “She was beat almost every time I was over there for just the smallest things. Elisa would get mad, she would take it out on Zahra, things the kid didn’t deserve.  Zahra just had a horrible home life.”

After repeated reports of abuse and confirmations from neighbors and family members, the worst scenario occurred.  On October 13, 2010, police dogs searched amongst tree trimming equipment, a wood chipper, and piles of mulch for Zahra’s body.  Elisa Baker reported her missing and produced a ransom note that she handed over to the police.  The note read “You like being in control.  Now who is in control.  We have your daughter” and demanded a ransom of 1 million dollars. The police promptly determined the ransom note was fake, an investigation ensued, and Elisa Baker was arrested.

“I just think this was something for a long time that we knew was going to happen, everybody that was close to the family,” Brittany Bentley said. Bentley said she would have Zahra over for weekends and the girl would get mad when it was time to return home, a common signal of a child that is being abused

Neighbors and family members were stunned.  After all, CPS had been called in to investigate several times during the months before her disappearance.

Kayla Allen Case Study

Kayla Allen, of Onslow County, North Carolina, was regularly abused by her parents.  Numerous reports were filed with Onslow County Child Protective Services and police even had photograph evidence of bruises on her face and body.  Finally, in desperation, her grandmother kidnapped her to remove her from the abusive household.  The grandmother was tracked down, arrested and Kayla returned to her parents by authorities.  14 months later, her mother, Carolyn Furtell was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Kayla Allen.  Shortly thereafter, the grandmother, laden with guilt over her broken promise to Kayla that nobody would ever hurt her again, committed suicide.

Jonathan Coffman Case Study

Jonathan Coffman lived with his mentally unstable mother.  Child Protective Services had been notified at least once about the unsafe living conditions Jonathan was placed in.  His mother, Sherry Coffman, did not have the mental fortitude to understand that a unheated home could be dangerous to a small child.  Despite the CPS investigation into the safety of the home, five year old Jonathan, curled into a ball, froze to death in his bedroom.

Justice Maura Corrigan said, “The phenomenon of children dying in state care is one that deserves special scrutiny. We know that there are many more deaths than make the newspapers.  The total number of children who die annually while under state care is unknown.  While multiple agencies track their numbers, no central tracking agency exists and tracking methods differ between agencies.”  That many children die while under the care of our social services system is without question but we don’t even know exactly how many die each year.

Quick to remove children

Child Protective Services is a state run social services operation which receives funding from federal resources.  The reasons for the failure of the system are widely discussed and debated.  Some charge that CPS is too quick to remove children from their homes, a policy known as “when in doubt, pull them out”.  And once a child is removed from the home, some state programs work to ensure the child is not placed in another family member’s home (assuming the apple does not fall far from the tree, a policy that some question as flawed).  In addition, many argue that the impact of a forced removal hits poorer families harder than well-to-do homes because lower income families do not have the financial resources to obtain legal assistance and fight the system that they may deem unfair or biased.

The flawed incentive system

Incentives within the child protective services program are often counterproductive.  States receive federal monies for children held in the system.  The more kids in the system, the more money the social services agency earns from housing and caring for the “state owned” child.  Rather than striving to move the abused childe into a private home with potential adoptive parents, the state sponsored financial assistance often creates a preference to place children in institutional care or with families who’s sole income is derived from caring for foster children.  It is widely understood that congregate type child care is not as effective or beneficial to the child as placement with a permanent family.  Regardless, there are virtually no incentives in place to encourage the movement of the child out of institutional care.

The process for determining abuse

The process for determining whether the abuse report was valid or inconsequential may also be flawed.  When a report is received by CPS, policies define the steps required to determine whether or not the child is in danger.  The report is first screened to determine whether or not it meets state policy criteria for defining a potential incidence of maltreatment.  Next, the name of the perpetrator is recorded in a central registry.  In this determination, there is not gray area or in-between.  The child is either safe or at risk.  If the situation is determined to be safe, there are no policies requiring regular follow-ups to ensure the determination was accurate and correct.  Although intended to ensure the safety and well being of the child, rigid policies often contain gaps.

The flawed aging out process

Many think the aging out process is flawed too.  For many foster children, the age of “18” is an important milestone.  For some, reaching the age of 18 means they will be “aged out” of the system.  Regardless of whether the child is in school or not, at age 18 the funding stops on the day the child turns 18.  For many, they are immediately kicked out of the foster home.  Homelessness among aged foster children is a problem for both boys and girls exiting the system.

Accountability and Fear

All too often, a child that is currently under the protection of Child Protective Services dies or is sexually assaulted.  In these cases, CPS is rarely held accountable.  Laws intended to protect the victim’s privacy can be manipulated and used to protect CPS workers even if negligence on the part of the social services organization can be proven.

In addition, family members often hesitate to challenge CPS for fear of retribution.  Mary Green, who had her 10 year old granddaughter forcibly removed from her home explained, “If a worker becomes angry with you, they’ll get back at you. They’ll get back by taking what they can from you.”  Families involved in a CPS investigation often feel that they are at the mercy of the child protective services agency.

Potential solutions

The potential solutions vary just as greatly as the many proposed flaws.  Changing standards about what constitutes abuse have created a broad range of reportable circumstances, too broad to be handled by a single agency.  Similarly, the functions and range of tasks provided by CPS are too broad.  The agencies act as both the assessors and investigators meaning the agency that is slotted to provide services in order to remediate the problem has the dual task of investigating and punishing the perpetrators.  A clearer delineation of the relationship between CPS and local police authorities and the tasks each is supposed to be responsible for is needed.  In addition, decentralizing or dividing child services tasks amongst various organizations may offer a solution.

Furthermore, there is a grave need for financial resources.  In tough economic times, the first costs to be cut are always social services programs.  This forces a greater workload on fewer people, educated and degreed people who are often already underpaid.  If monies cannot be expanded and allocated to these social service programs, then the creation of community centered or volunteer staffed service delivery systems may be required.

And finally, the child protective laws themselves may require change.  Incentive programs should be created to ensure the objective is to place children with adoptive families rather than institutional care centers. Secrecy should be avoided and laws intended to protect victims reworked to ensure CPS and other protective agencies cannot hide their mistakes through laws that were intended to protect the victim.  Child protective services must acknowledge their mistakes and be held accountable in order to make needed corrections.

Reviewed: 10/7/14