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State’s children need a watchdog

By Maria McColgan and Cathleen Palm

Preventing child abuse and protecting children is a shared community responsibility. A number of parties should be held accountable, for example, in the death of Quasir Alexander, the Philadelphia 2-month-old who starved to death last month even as he and his family were getting publicly financed services. His mother, Tanya Williams, should certainly be held accountable, but so should every system that intersected with his life.

While government is not solely responsible for preventing such deaths, it does play a central role. And beyond an honest assessment of what preceded Quasir’s death, his case should provide more momentum for the creation of a child protection ombudsperson - an independent watchdog for the state’s children.

Before Quasir, there were Joselynn Urquia, Samari Campbell, Madison Dodson, Johnathan Nodine, Erica Barnes, Jayahn Cox-Phoenix, Robert Beyers, Leeairra Ann Weller, Caleigh Ainsley Weller, and other Pennsylvania children who apparently died as a result of abuse and neglect in 2010. Between 2002 and 2009, the commonwealth recorded at least 344 child abuse-related deaths. Most of these children died before they celebrated their second birthdays, and nearly half died despite some connection to our child-welfare system.

Child-abuse deaths are not just a Philadelphia problem. Children have died in Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Fayette, Franklin, Northampton, York, and other counties over the past decade. All together, they would have filled an elementary school.

While we cannot prevent every death or serious injury of a child, these cases are a signal that we can and must do better. And doing better is partly a matter of improving Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system.

Granted, thousands of Pennsylvania children, youths, and families benefit from child-welfare services, which are delivered by public and private providers in a state-supervised, county-administered system that has its strengths. It is, however, a system pulled in many different directions. That often hurts its ability to effectively assess and assure children’s safety, protect the rights of parents and children, prevent the removal of children from their homes, minimize disruption when they must be removed, and communicate and share critical information with its partners.

This publicly funded system and the decisions made within it profoundly impact the safety, liberty, and custody of the state’s children and families. The system also has consequences for state and local government budgets.

And yet despite all this, there is no state entity providing independent oversight of the system and resolving complaints about it. Simply stated, there’s no place to ring the bell loudly for vulnerable children.

Such oversight entities already exist in Pennsylvania for the disabled and the elderly, providing independent complaint resolution and uncovering potential systemic concerns. Gov. Corbett’s pick for secretary of the Department of Public Welfare, the agency with jurisdiction over child-welfare services, recently held a similar post in Rhode Island, which has long had a state-level child advocate. That office recently opened an investigation into serious injuries sustained by infants receiving child-welfare services in Rhode Island, noting some "commonalities" among cases.

An independent ombudsperson would not be a panacea for Pennsylvania’s child-welfare problems, but rather a tool for ensuring a child-centered approach to these services. It would make the system more accountable and more transparent. And it would have the added benefit of encouraging an overdue shift away from attempting to heal abused children and toward preventing their abuse.

In his inaugural address, the governor called for transparency, accountability, and renewed trust in government. It’s time to answer that call for Pennsylvania’s vulnerable and abused children.

Dr. Maria McColgan is the medical director of the child-protection program at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
Cathleen Palm is a cofounder of the Protect Our Children Committee.
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