By William T. Gettman Jr.
The heartbreaking life and death of 5-year-old Eain Brooks, detailed in The Buffalo News, is a sobering reminder that good intentions – and a system designed to protect vulnerable children – cannot always prevent tragedy.
During his brief life, Eain was the subject of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline and investigations by the Erie County child protective unit. While the investigations will play an important part in improving outcomes, they come after the fact. Troubling questions remain about events leading up to Eain’s death. Could this tragedy have been prevented? Should frequent allegations of abuse have prompted closer scrutiny of the family? When should a child be removed from his or her home?
More importantly, plenty of good people are wondering if they could have done more to protect Eain. Where do we go from here? First, some facts.
Some 1,300 allegations of abuse and neglect are reported daily in New York. About 5,000 highly trained and dedicated professionals are responsible for receiving and investigating tens of thousands of allegations each year.
According to Prevent Child Abuse New York, more than 100 children die from abuse or neglect in the state every year. Complicated problems rarely have simple solutions, and the issue of child abuse and neglect – where poverty, substance abuse and mental illness exacerbate the problem – is especially complex.
The good news? Everyone agrees that protecting children is one of our highest priorities. Each of us can work together. We can and should:
• Rigorously educate the public about recognizing signs of child abuse and neglect, and provide easy-to-access resources.
• Raise awareness about abuse to generate support, public and private, for initiatives that protect children.
• Promote community-based responses that include parents, caregivers, law enforcement and health and human service professionals and that focus on prevention, awareness and service delivery.
• Support common-sense legislation that strengthens at-risk families and reduces the likelihood of abuse.
• Provide trained supervisory and front staff with the tools and support to make informed decisions.
• Maintain a public, frank and ongoing dialogue about our local and state child protective system and day-to-day practices, reviewing and improving existing systems to avoid future tragedies.
New York has made great strides in creating a child welfare system second to none. Child protective services have saved and improved the lives of countless children. But we can do better.
William T. Gettman Jr. is executive director of St. Catherine’s Center for Children in Albany, and is a former executive deputy commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services.