During the last five years, funding for child-protective services has increased 2 percent nationwide, while reports of child abuse have increased 55 percent, according to the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and
The widening gap between the demand for child-protective services and the resources available has reached the breaking point, according to some experts, who predict even more abuse, particularly among the nation's chronically poor.
"Workers who handled 20 cases are now handling 40," said Ann Cohn, executive director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, in Chicago. "They are poorly trained, have little experience, are poorly paid, overworked and burned out.
"Under these conditions, the system simply can't be functioning."
It will inevitably take more money, and lots of it, to provide the counseling, health care, education, job training and, when necessary, foster care to protect children at risk, say experts. But the alternative, they contend, could be even more costly.
"Our studies show that 80 to 90 percent of prison inmates suffered some abuse or neglect as children," said Katie Bond of the American Humane Association, a Denver-based organization that advises public and private agencies on combating child abuse.
"Quality services that provide real support for families in trouble could in the end save us millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in terms of the social costs that these abused and neglected children present when they become adults."
NATIONAL TRENDS CITED
The national trends and the need for more staff and resources have been cited repeatedly by officials in the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and by the union that represents city social workers in discussing the three recent child deaths in the city allegedly caused by child abuse.
"If there is a lack of public confidence in the way the agency is doing its job, I would ask you to look at what the trends are nationally," said Rosemary Hake, director of the department's Division of Children and Youth, on Tuesday, after Naomi Rivera, 24, became the third mother in three months to be charged with the murder of a young child while under department supervision.
"Large cities are experiencing a growing incidence of child-abuse homicides. You can have all the safety nets possible, and some kids will slip through," Hake said.
According to several experts, however, pressures on the nation's child- protective agencies should not absolve the agencies, or individual social workers, from responsibility when cases are mishandled.
"I don't want to let the workers off the hook," said Cohn of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "In many cases there are screw- ups from stupidity, laziness and ignorance. Sometimes there has been improper supervision and training. In Chicago, we had one case where a worker actually falsified records. In all cases, there must be an independent way to evaluate whether the decisions made were reasonable under the circumstances."
The question of who is to blame when a child dies because of abuse erupted here during a demonstration on July 14 at Department of Human Services headquarters, 1401 Arch St. Hundreds of city workers walked off their jobs to protest the city's plan to discipline a social worker and two of his supervisors accused of mishandling the case of Sylvia Smith, 3, whose mummified body was found by police May 21 in a West Philadelphia housing project.
Police say the girl's mother, Clarise Smith, 22, starved her to death in early February. The death came three months after a city social worker had recommended to a Common Pleas Court judge that the family be discharged from department supervision.
Smith had been reported twice, in 1984 and 1985, for allegedly abusing Sylvia and had shown an unwillingness to cooperate with child-abuse investigators in the past, according to records. Department sources have reported that the case was never assigned to long-term supervision and counseling.
The failure to assign cases for ongoing oversight has been a longstanding agency problem, department administrators have said.
It also occurred in the case of Malik Richard Barnhill, 2, whose decomposed body was discovered June 10 in a dresser drawer in a North Philadelphia rowhouse.
Richie Barnhill, who was born several weeks premature, had been hospitalized for the first nine months of his life and then spent an additional year in foster care before workers from the Department of Human Services agreed to allow his return to his mother, Selena Barnhill, in January 1986. Police say the mother, 34, has told them that the boy died on March 6 last year.
ELUDED SOCIAL WORKERS
The mother, who has been charged with murdering Richie, had been ordered to remain under department supervision when the baby was returned to her, but she eluded social workers for several months until they took her to court in June 1986 on a bench warrant.
On that occasion, she appeared with three of her children but not with Richie. Officials accepted Barnhill's explanation that the boy had "gone South" to visit relatives. After the hearing the mother moved and had no further contact with the department until she was arrested in July and her other children were placed in foster care.
In the Smith case, state Public Welfare Secretary John F. White Jr., whose department is investigating the city's handling of the alleged child-abuse deaths, said in June that the city agency had failed to carry out its own required procedures and regulations.
When department administrators tried to discipline the worker and his supervisors, the union vehemently objected. Thomas Paine Cronin, president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, accused White and Mayor Goode of "seeking scapegoats" among individual workers.
Cronin, and scores of social workers from the Department of Human Services, contend that a failure to adequately fund the agency has created intolerable working conditions in which overburdened social workers simply cannot protect all children at risk.
An evaluation of department operations conducted by state public-welfare officials this year found that several of the agency's workers had caseloads beyond the state-mandated limit of 30 each. The agency has promised to create 30 new positions to ensure that all workers are within the limit.
According to the American Humane Association, even caseloads of 30 per worker are too high. "A caseworker should be able to handle 18 to 20 cases at a time," said spokeswoman Bond. "Anything higher than that and the caseworker will have problems doing an adequate job."
At present, according to child-abuse experts here and across the country, the sheer number of cases often forces workers to make snap judgments as to which families are most at risk.
"These judgments are frequently based on faulty or incomplete information," said Joseph Alfaro, coordinator of the Mayor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect in New York City. "It's not always fair to blame the worker, because high caseloads and a constant crisis atmosphere contribute to an atmosphere in which bad decisions can be made."
Alfaro recently concluded research in which 73 cases that ended in a child- abuse homicide were compared with 114 randomly selected child-abuse cases that did not end in death. "I was looking for risk factors that might help us identify and predict which cases could end with a fatality," he said.
He found that the highest risks of homicide occurred when the child was under 2 years of age, especially among those who were an only child or the youngest child. He also found a significant increase in homicides among
families in which a child had been removed from the home by court order.
"The data told us that when a sibling is removed from the home, we better have a very clear rationale for leaving the other child with the family," he said.
"Most of the things that occur in fatal incidents - parental impairment
from addiction or mental illness, an arrest history, the young age of the mother, chronic poverty and other sources of stress - were also found to the same statistical degree in abuse cases that did not end in death," he said.