How many more children must die?

How many more children must die?
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Several years and 800 miles apart, two U.S. children suffered a similar brutal fate. Strangers discovered the bodies of Emani Moss in Georgia in 2013 and, this past week, AJ Freund in Illinois. Emani was 10 years old and weighed 32 pounds when she died. She was starved and discarded in a spare room until she was dumped in a barrel and burned. AJ was only 5 when he was murdered, wrapped in plastic and buried. Who could do such terrible things? Tragically, authorities have accused their parents of killing them. And it seems that others — law enforcement, children’s services — failed to protect them.

Emani Moss was 6 when her father married the woman accused of murdering her. Tiffany Moss represented herself but mounted no defense in her ongoing death-penalty trial for Emani’s starvation death; Emani’s father pleaded guilty and testified against his wife. Throughout the trial, gripping testimony revealed that the girl confided in school officials that she was afraid to go home, and her stepmother was previously convicted of cruelty for beating her. Emani had run away several times and once was sent to live with her grandmother, but she wasn’t permanently removed from her parents’ household. Instead, in a perfect example of the insanity of our child “protection” system, she was doomed to continue living with the woman accused of killing her.  

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How many cries for help did this child need to make to merit protection? How many cases like this have police and child services seen, where a child is sent back to an unsafe environment and later killed? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies child abuse and neglect as a public health problem and reports hundreds of thousands of victims.

One would think that Emani Moss’s death alone would have taught us to intervene when incidents of child cruelty and neglect are reported. If only that were so, perhaps AJ Freund would be alive today. Instead, police announced last week that they found his body in a shallow grave in some woods not far from his home. They have charged his parents in his beating death.

A week before his body was found, AJ’s father called 911 to report him missing. Detectives investigating the case learned that child services had made 17 contacts with the family over the short span of AJ’s life. He was born with opiates in his system, but allowed to stay with his parents after they took parenting classes. Authorities say concerned citizens raised alarms that AJ and his younger brother were living in unsafe conditions, but child services declined to investigate.

These cases — and many others — demonstrate that we must promulgate solutions to a failing system:

  • First, those who failed to protect these children must be held accountable, even fired.  Why would we trust people who showed such terrible judgment to continue to make decisions?  

  • Second, every state should put in place strict rules limiting the number of cases assigned to any child protection caseworker. Caseworkers have little time to engage personally with any child or family. How, then, can we expect them to make good decisions without adequate time and resources?

  • Third, there should be mandatory training for first responders and all child protection personnel. This training should include understanding the dynamics of child abuse and learning to spot the “red flags” that might lead to a child’s death. Such training should be required on a rolling basis.  

  • Fourth, no case should be closed as “unfounded,” and no child should be returned to a risky environment without multiple levels of approval.  

Given all the failures that have led to preventable deaths, it seems that allowing one person — whether it be a child services supervisor or a judge — to make the decision to return a child to an abusive environment is an obvious mistake. It is time to employ a multidisciplinary team approach to child protection.  

When a child makes an allegation of sexual abuse, most judicial districts in this country have teams composed of law enforcement, social services and the medical profession who discuss the case together, each giving an informed opinion based upon his or her area of expertise. We should require this same kind of approach when deciding whether to allow a child to live in an environment of neglect or abuse.  

It is time to establish best practices and models for each state to adopt. The issue is too serious to continue to ignore. Every year, according to ChildHelp, more than 3.6 million referrals are made to child protection agencies involving more than 6.6 million children. We need a presidential commission with experts to examine the problem and recommend solutions. What is more important than protecting our children?

Francey Hakes is CEO of a consulting firm that provides counsel on the protection of children. She served as the first National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction from January 2010 to March 2012. A prosecutor for more than 15 years, she was an assistant district attorney specializing in crimes against children and an assistant U.S. attorney specializing in technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation. Follow her on Twitter @FranceyHakes.