No Gifts for Dead Kids
by The Rome News-Tribune
December 05, 2013 11:55 PM | 553 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Christmas being a special time, particularly for children, it would be nice if the State of Georgia managed to keep more of them, over which it has oversight and responsibility, alive to enjoy the day ... and all days.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case for some decades now, with attention called to the situation only during intense, but brief, flare-ups of print and “film at 11” interest, as recently occurred in a whole series of sorry-outcome cases topped by the emaciated, burned body of a 10-year-old girl being found in a garbage can outside her family’s Lawrenceville apartment. She had been, literally, thrown out with the trash.

While the fire this time is not out, Gov. Nathan Deal actually did a good job smothering the worst flames in what, in Georgia, is a routine inferno.

This has happened time and again, to the point that one newspaper simply reported as a fact everybody knows: “The Division of Family and Children’s Services agency’s shortcomings, which have contributed to dozens of children’s deaths ...”. Just things as normal in Georgia, so children beware. The governor jumped in with the right words, the proper level of concern, a quick infusion of money — more promised than delivered.

It is not simply a police matter, or even a social-worker problem. There are basic rights at play — parental ones, children’s privacy, the inviolability of what happens inside a family’s castle.

Even school personnel, often the first line of detection, must tread with care else they step on a landmine because they, too, must assume nothing without provable evidence. And even grandmothers, as with the case of the burned, 34-pound body of the 10-year-old, can scream and holler all they wish but have no legal rights if the child is living with its natural mother.

The whole thing is a nightmare that too long has left a bystanding public tossing and turning in an uncomfortable bed that it pays for.

If there is any lesson here, given the decades-long duration of this messy situation in Georgia, it is that very fundamental changes must be made — not only to the system but also to the laws that now allege to protect those most helpless in society ... and without legal standing of their own to complain.

Just throwing more money at the situation, as Deal quickly vowed to do, solves nothing and particularly so — as nobody seems to have noticed — when it is not more money at all. It is simply restoring some of the money previously taken away to balance budgets in difficult times when, apparently, the lives and safety of children (and a lot of others among the “underprivileged”) were considered expendable to the supposed “great good” ... and the re-election prospects of the governing political party?

On the day they buried the most-publicized victim, Deal said he would propose to the legislature spending an additional $27 million over three years to hire 525 new child-protection workers.

That would begin, in the 2015 budget that starts on July 1 of 2014, with $7.4 million to hire 146 additional caseworkers and 29 supervisors.

Left unsaid: The same governor and General Assembly have, according to actual numbers studied by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, since 2009 cut the child-welfare services funding of DFACS from $275 million a year to $206 million in fiscal 2013. That’s $69 million. Tossing another $28 million into the effort, in steps not completed until July 1, 2016, won’t even bring the “troop level” of guardian personnel and funding back to where it was on July 1, 2009.

Nor does this account for population growth, inflation or even the economic stress of recent years that is known to fray families or have them snap under pressure. Indeed, just between 2011 and 2012, the number of child abuse/neglect investigations doubled to a daily state average of 3,432. The fewer remaining caseworkers are said to average 20-30 cases each (some involving multiple children). Any single parents out there trying to watch over 30 children ... but only allowed 40 hours a week?

It is magical, and politicians know it, how pledging to throw money at a problem seems to make it go away from the public’s attention.

What it is time the general public noticed, and refused to forget, is that lots of states have messy “social services” problems — child welfare, prisons, mental health and so forth.

It is the extent and duration of those in Georgia that should be very worrisome. After all, there are actually some other states that almost never have “scandals” in these realms.

What is it that they do differently?

Certainly is doesn’t simply involve throwing more money at such problems given taxpayers, pretty much everywhere, know that kissing ouchies with dollars tends not to make those problems go away. Certainly it is not just firing the DFACS caseworkers handling the most egregious cases and keeping all those others who only had less-fatal outcomes.

More likely the differences are based on actual concern of a constant nature by top state leadership that leads to better structures, higher expectations, more closely supervised personnel that are probably paid something more akin to professional-level salaries.

It is not just money that will remedy this situation, although the present conditions have been neglected to the point that more funding will certainly be required. Rather it is a greater investment in public interest, societal attitude, personnel competence and state leadership that will be necessary in an abundant quantity that is now missing.

Failing that, a body count that is constant but gets mentioned every now-and-then is the only alternative. It is also unacceptable ... or ought to be.

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