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Emory Law News Center


Barton Center director Melissa Carter: preventing child deaths is everyone's responsibility

Emory University School of Law |

This opinion article by Barton Child Law and Policy Center Executive Director Melissa Carter was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 2, 2013

In 2011, Georgia had the 12th highest rate in the country of number of children dying as a result of child abuse and neglect, according to federal reports. This high rate of child maltreatment — along with the deaths of 152 children whose families were known to the Department of Family and Children Services — is a rallying point for us all, one that demands a call to action.

A single child maltreatment-related death is unacceptable for our child protection system. No lesser standard can be stomached. This burden rests heavily on the shoulders of thousands of dedicated caseworkers throughout the state and the rest of us who support them. These professionals are confronted every day with assessment of incomplete information under the most imperfect of circumstances. They must skillfully take apart and knit together complex families, in environments full of danger, as agents of a system that is under-resourced and under-appreciated.

They must balance their professional judgment against legal mandates, cultural standards, an inadequate service array, and moral imperatives limiting government interference in the family. The call to action requires that we support our child protection system with our tax dollars and with our shared convictions about the daunting task at hand.

Georgia has established data collection systems and case review procedures, including internal reviews by DFCS and the statewide child fatality review and reporting process. These activities produce vital information about how many children die, the causes of their deaths, and the age, race, and relationship characteristics of the child and the perpetrators. The patterns reveal insights about the risk factors associated with child fatalities.

And yet, the tragic stories of children like Jonathan Sturdy and the Terrell Petersons and Kyshawn Punters and Bryan Morenos continue to command headlines decrying the state’s failure to protect children. The call to action requires that we work to better understand which children are most at risk and move that analysis into information and action.

DFCS alone cannot solve the problems of child maltreatment and related fatalities, however. Georgia’s child welfare system does fail. Experienced and trained workers sometimes miss or respond improperly to red flags. But DFCS is only one aspect of the continuum of child protection. Child protection starts with each one of us. Jonathan, Terrell, Kyshawn, Bryan and hundreds of others had relatives, teachers, neighbors and other adults around them who had the opportunity and responsibility to intervene. Our elected and public officials are also part of the child protection system. The call to action requires that we act boldly within our roles and systems to ensure all children are safe and connected to families and communities.

Deaths from child abuse and neglect are preventable, and we have a shared responsibility to prevent them. We must insist that data on child fatalities and serious injuries be analyzed well and shared outside of government. We must be willing to act on what we learn, beyond just satisfying ourselves with more criticism of the system. We must exercise our courage on behalf of children in our families, schools and communities, and we must require public investments and priorities that will keep all children safe.

We must rally this time. The cost to children, their families, society, and our humanity is too great to allow our resolve to ebb again.

Related links

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