Adults are supposed to nurture and protect children. When what they do instead is beat, torture, molest, starve or neglect children, the state is supposed to step in. That mandate may be unreasonable for a field that can be educated guesswork, but it also is nonnegotiable – which makes the tragic stories told in The Eagle over the past week infuriating as well as heartbreaking.
The public even expects child welfare officials to know the unknowable and prevent the unthinkable, which is what happened to Emma Krueger last week.
She was the 3-year-old who died Wednesday at Wesley Medical Center. According to police officials, she suffered beatings for perhaps as long as a month before her mother called 911 on Monday night because she wasn’t breathing. She reportedly had bruises all over her body and swelling in her brain. Yet The Eagle reported Friday that “there had been no 911 calls reporting possible abuse or previous investigations of potential criminal activity” involving her mother or her mother’s boyfriend, who were arrested and may face murder charges.
But as Deb Gruver’s sobering “In Need of Care” articles in The Eagle demonstrated earlier last week, multiple reports don’t guarantee the system will act swiftly, decisively or at all.
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The report that prompted police to put a 14-year-old girl weighing 66 pounds and her three adopted brothers in protective custody in March “was the ninth time in a little more than five years that someone had voiced concerns about her welfare to the Kansas Department for Children and Families,” Gruver reported.
The rare detailed look at a child-in-need-of-care case described the girl’s early neglect and failure to thrive at the hands of her biological mother, her 2004 adoption, and finally her recent removal from the home of her adoptive parents because of treatment a doctor described as “child torture.”
If each reported injury or alarming anecdote left room for doubt at the time, leading DCF’s experts to determine the allegations were unsubstantiated, they add up in hindsight as compelling evidence of a child at serious risk and a family in trouble. In another case Gruver is following, there were more than a dozen DCF reports involving the family between 2003 and 2014.
There will always be competing priorities, with relatives wanting to keep authorities at bay, social workers preferring to keep families whole, and prosecutors seeking to intervene to safeguard the child.
But with reports of child abuse and neglect up 25 percent over five years in Sedgwick County, as of last June, and another 5.4 percent for the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, this isn’t just a systemic problem but a communitywide one calling for more donations and volunteer hours, more foster parents and a coordinated response by public and nonprofit leaders. The system’s official secrecy, meant to protect children and family privacy, must not be allowed to shroud incompetence, embarrassing mistakes or gross underfunding.
Maybe a system that relies on judgment calls and strapped resources can’t get it right every time. But it would be wrong to expect anything less, or to shrug off the cases of the 14-year-old girl in the basement or the slain 3-year-old as either unavoidable or acceptable.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman