It Takes a Firestorm


Recent child-abuse allegations against Minnesota Vikings player, Adrian Peterson, have brought widespread attention to a problem that harms the wellbeing and life chances of hundreds of thousands of America’s children. The national media rarely focus much attention on child-abuse, except in situations that involve a celebrity. Unfortunately, while the Peterson scandal has prompted much reporting on this topic, most Americans remain unaware of three much larger child-abuse scandals uncovered during the past year.

Last spring, the Miami Herald reported that 477 children known to Florida’s Department for Children and Families (DCF) had died in just over six years; an average of nearly 80 deaths per year. Adding to Floridians shock and outrage was the revelation that some of these deaths happened after DCF had failed to respond to numerous reports of impending danger. The fact that most of the children had been killed in their own homes led to calls for placing more maltreated children into foster homes.

However, foster care harbors its own risks. In another scandal, ten children placed into foster care by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) died under suspicious circumstances, during a recent twelve-month period. After public outcry prompted a review, Texas suspended the licenses of several of its foster homes, citing serious concerns, including foster parents using corporal punishment and withholding food from children placed in their care.

Earlier this year, a similar firestorm erupted regarding the Massachusetts Department for Children and Families (DCF). The death of 4-year old boy sparked public outrage when it became known that DCF had failed to act in response to a series of reports of danger in the home, and did not visit the family even once during the eight-months prior to the death.  Massachusetts residents were further stunned to learn that an average of 9-10 children under DCF’s supervision were dying of suspected or confirmed maltreatment each year, a rate 6 times higher than for non-DCF-involved children.

Other states have had their own recent scandals surrounding deaths of children, and there is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. Why?  Poor leadership and shoddy practices play a role; however the biggest factor is that these systems are severely under-resourced. Recent scandals have exposed child-protective systems that were grossly understaffed, with caseworkers carrying excessively high caseloads of at-risk families, making it impossible to monitor the safety of the children in those families.

Moreover, many state systems lack the sophisticated information systems necessary to keep close track of the tens of thousands of children for which they are responsible. The result is that online shoppers can keep better track of their new Amazon purchases than child-protective workers can of the children on their caseloads.  Children’s safety is also imperiled when systems lack the resources to recruit, train, and monitor enough foster families.  This means that when placing a child, caseworkers too-often must choose among a paltry array of foster homes, including those that are inappropriate or even dangerous.

Let’s look at budgets in the three states I mentioned.  Between 2009 and 2014, Massachusetts cut its DCF budget by nearly $130 million (adjusted for inflation), despite steadily growing numbers of families entering that system. Even with additional allocations after scathing reports on the deaths of children under its supervision, DCF’s inflation-adjusted budget for its 2014-2015 fiscal year was slated to be less than it was in 2007.  Texas, whose system has the highest death rate in the country, ranks 43rd among states for its per-capita spending on child-protective services. In 2011, Texas cut, by $27 million, its budget for community-based services that help prevent child maltreatment. Florida’s DCF budget decreased by $80 million in the seven years leading up to 2013, even though overall state spending increased by nearly $9 billion during that same period.

These states are far from the exception. In the depths of the most-recent recession, when disadvantaged families were especially stressed, thirty-three states decreased spending on child-protective services, and three states froze their funding at prior levels. Deadlock in Washington made it worse. In passing The Budget Control Act of 2011, knows as sequestration, Congress locked in reductions in federal funding for child-protective systems, and for programs that help prevent maltreatment. It also blocked the Obama Administration’s attempt to offset those cuts with $250 million a year for “incentive payments to states that demonstrate real, meaningful improvements” in service quality and outcomes for children in their systems.

What makes the most-recent firestorms sickeningly familiar is that they mirror the cycle of past scandals in a number of states. When public outrage peaks, front-line protective workers and administrators are fired, and politicians allocate additional, but not sufficient, funding. In too many instances, the systemic weaknesses uncovered by investigations of newly reported child fatalities are identical to those exposed by previous child deaths. In other words, nothing much changes between catastrophes.

Although it is not just about money –oversight and accountability are also critical- funding really does matter. State and federal officials will not allocate funds to shore up our severely under-resourced child-protective systems unless voters insist that they do. It should take neither an NFL scandal nor a spate of children’s deaths to bring attention to the plight of the more than 740,000 abused and neglected children each year, whose safety and wellbeing depend on these systems.


Lenette Azzi-Lessing, LICSW, PhD, joined the Wheelock faculty in 2006, with more than 25 years experience as a clinical social worker, administrator, and policy advocate. Her work focuses on improving the well being and life chances of vulnerable, young children and their families, particularly those living in poverty and those involved in the child welfare system.