This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 28, 2016.
I was genuinely touched and felt some steel in my patriotic veins as we paused to remember the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Even though I’m on the elder end of the Baby Boomer Generation, that “day of infamy” is still history to me, and I need frankly to be reminded of the lessons attendant to that terrible Sunday so long ago.
Among the lessons to be learned from the Japanese attack on our Pacific fleet was the impact of missed signals. You can’t think about December 7, 1941, without being anguished by the multitude of early warning signals that were ignored or overlooked by the American military, intelligence and political communities. And so many patriots paid the ultimate price for those oversights.
The 2016 Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel’s Annual Report was just released, and it may well be Kentucky’s Pearl Harbor. In more than half (59 percent) of the SFY 2015 cases reviewed by the panel, there was a prior history with child protective services. That means the agency designated to protect children had contact with these children in the past before the child died or nearly died from abuse or neglect. Of those 59 percent of cases with a child protective services history, there was an average of 4.25 prior contacts.
That should alarm us all. It should rock us to answer the obvious query — How can that level of persistent contact fail to lead to interventions and preventive action?
While it might be easy to point the finger at any one group, the problem lies in many areas of the system intended to protect children.
One part of that system’s problem is adequacy. We need more social workers. We need more richly resourced family courts. We need a commitment to supports like quality family preservation services for families in crises. Budget cuts over the years reduced available services with which we could refer our vulnerable families and reduced the pool of family members who could step up to take children in with cuts to the Kinship Care Program.
And the second part of that system’s problem is about improvement. We have to fundamentally reform the profession for front-line social workers around issues from pay to a career ladder where leadership opportunities are there for front line staff. Social workers have one of the most dangerous and most important jobs in America, and right now our front-line workers are sent out into the field without enough training and with too many cases to keep kids safe. We have to move towards a more team-oriented approach to resolving cases and reorganizing the cabinet to ensure a more transparent and accountable management structure. We have to move aggressively forward to ensure that the left-hand knows what the right hand is doing when it comes to children and abuse.
The commonwealth is replete with reports. But I have never seen one that calls for more immediate and direct action than this one. It is my belief that Gov. Matt Bevin and every legislator – be they a Democrat or a Republican – share a common commitment to protecting children. And that commitment must translate into action. That action must begin with smart legislation in the 2017 General Assembly and, perhaps even more significantly, it must animate the 2018 state budget.
This is not one of those hyperbolic headlines. It is no ideological game. It is literally a commitment that affects whether our children live or die.
To be blunt, this nation blew it when it came to preventing Pearl Harbor. Kentucky can’t blow it when it comes to preventing child fatalities from abuse and neglect.
Dr. Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which is a proud partner of the Face It® Movement to end child abuse