Working to transform the child welfare system.

Partners for Our Children recently wrote this op-ed, which was featured on Crosscut. The op-ed examines the data behind a recent news report on child fatalities.

By Dr. Benjamin de Haan, Executive Director

The death of a child, particularly when it is a result of maltreatment, is a tragedy beyond all comparison. So it’s no surprise that the media spotlight these horrific, but rare cases, often fueling an intense public reaction without telling the complete story.

Recently, KOMO 4 News discussed one such case in their segment “Failure to Protect”. In that story, KOMO reported that numbers of child fatalities in Washington State “are going in the wrong direction” and that the DSHS Children’s Administration isn’t doing enough to protect the children in our state. We would like to offer some additional evidence which we hope will provide a more complete view of this critically important issue.

But first, let me explain who we are. Partners for Our Children is an independent child welfare research and policy center at the University of Washington. We work to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families in Washington State, especially those touched by the child welfare system. We do this by examining and sharing the existing data and scientific evidence relevant to making improvements in state child welfare practice and policy.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the numbers KOMO used. Their story cites a low of eight child fatalities in 2009, with a steady climb to 23 in 2011. These figures are taken from a recent report from the Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman (OFCO). By referencing numbers since 2004 (which the report provides), it clearly shows that the numbers fluctuate from year to year. In fact, if a line of “best fit” is added, the trend over the long run is essentially flat (see Figure 1). Referencing only three of the eight years of available data, which appear to show an increase, leads to a faulty conclusion.

Figure 1

Further, if we consider the number of Child Protective Services investigations conducted by the Children’s Administration in a year – approximately 40,000 – the changes in the number of fatalities since 2004 are statistically stable (see Figure 2). So while the individual cases are certainly tragic and alarming, there is no alarming trend.

Figure 2

Social workers, supervisors and Children’s Administration leadership make critical safety decisions every day for the children they serve. For every child referred to Child Protective Services, someone has to make the call as to whether that child is safe at home or should be removed from his or her family. Even when following the best professional child welfare practices and using tested risk assessment instruments, there is always a degree of uncertainty and it’s impossible to predict the outcome in every case.

Since there are so many factors at play when serving these vulnerable children, it is unfair to spotlight one agency as the sole reason for every death, every year. We know that the Children’s Administration is not perfect, but we also know that they work in good faith to do their very best to protect children in our state every day.

The task of the Children’s Administration is daunting: to keep some of Washington’s most vulnerable children safe and healthy. To do this, the Children’s Administration works closely with law enforcement, the courts, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, family members and a wide variety of other groups in our state. Only through the concerted efforts of each of these individuals across the community can this task be accomplished, and most of the time, these efforts are successful. When failure occurs, the Children’s Administration should be held accountable for their role, but we must do so by using information responsibly and by recognizing the complexity of Washington’s child welfare system and the inherent difficulties in predicting human behavior.

Fortunately, progress is being made by the Children’s Administration. For example, as Jennifer Strus, Assistant Secretary of the Children’s Administration, pointed out in the KOMO report, the agency created a workgroup to examine the problems and needs of children ages 0 to 3 years old, as they are most often the victims of abuse that leads to serious injury or death. This new workgroup is comprised of Children’s Administration staff, researchers, advocates and other stakeholders. Findings from this group should improve CPS practices and policies. Further, the agency is committed to transparency as demonstrated by their support of HB 1774, which was passed by the last state legislature. This new law requires the state to regularly report comprehensive data to the public on how the child welfare system is working. These are just two examples of recent efforts to improve the system for children, and there are many more. Progress is being made.

The tragic reality is, even with our best efforts, we will never be able to prevent every child fatality. No single entity can predict and control the actions of every single parent or caretaker who may, at some point, harm his or her child. If this were possible, no one would welcome it more than the employees of the Children’s Administration.

To better understand the statistics behind this op-ed, as well as the assumptions made, please reference “Child Fatalities Statistics Explained”.