Don’t Blame Child Welfare System for TaJanay’s Death

December 2, 2007

Indiana Writers Group column for Dec. 5 and thereafter

by Andrea Neal

Indiana’s child protection system has been rightly blamed over the years for failing the children it is supposed to serve. The problems have covered the spectrum: too few caseworkers, children lingering too long in foster care, too many decisions designed to cover agency tracks rather than do what’s best for families.

But the latest tragedy appears less the result of system failure than failure of humans to act humanely. The public mustn’t jump to the conclusion that TaJanay Bailey — the 3-year-old Indianapolis girl apparently beaten to death in her own home — was the victim of the state’s family reunification policy, which attempts to reunite abused children with their parents.

TaJanay became a ward of the state in 2004 not long after her birth. She spent much of her life in foster care, but at the time of her death was living on a trial basis with her mother and the mother’s boyfriend, a step toward permanent reunification of the family.

It’s understandable that TaJanay’s former foster mother, Janice Springfield, would feel the system failed TaJanay. But it was premature and rash for Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi — just hours after the story broke — to suggest that caseworkers did something wrong by attempting to return the girl to her mother.

When caseworkers work with troubled families to keep them together, they are doing what law requires and what research suggests is best for children. Foster homes are necessary and good foster parents hard to come by, but even the best aren’t ideal. It would be a double tragedy if TaJanay’s case reversed our efforts at preserving families.

Per capita, Indiana removes children from abusive or neglectful homes at a rate 15 percent higher than the national average and double the rate of Illinois, whose system is held up as a model. In fiscal year 2005, 7,571 children were taken from their families in child protection proceedings in Indiana; only 648 children returned home.

The opening of the file in TaJanay’s case makes clear that caseworkers were working hard with this family and following established procedures toward reunification. No doubt errors were made along the way. Perhaps investigation will conclude that Charity Bailey was unfit and not deserving a second chance. Then again, Bailey had had a second baby since TaJanay’s birth and was pregnant yet again. With mandatory sterilization not an option, family preservation must have seemed the best course.

In any given case, it’s a judgment call whether a family can be kept together or whether out-of-home placement is needed. Foster care brings with it its own set of risks. In Indiana almost 5 percent of foster care placements between 2004 and 2005 revealed abuse or neglect in state approved homes. Just this October, an Indianapolis woman and her two foster children were murdered, allegedly by the woman’s biological son.

In one of the most comprehensive studies ever done, “Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care,” Joseph Doyle of MIT compared long-term outcomes of abused children who remained at home with those who were placed in foster homes. The 2006 study attempted to isolate the effects of foster care placement by focusing on children whose caseworkers considered them “close calls” – in other words, they weren’t sure whether to keep them home or remove them. Researchers then made statistical comparisons of the two groups. The foster children were more likely to become juvenile delinquents, had a higher teen birth rate and were less successful in jobs.

After years at the bottom of the barrel, Indiana’s child protection system has been improving. The creation of a new Department of Child Services headed by former Juvenile Judge James Payne, the hiring of hundreds of new caseworkers, and improved data systems were starting to have an impact. It was ironic but coincidental that TaJanay’s death came on the day the Annie E. Casey Foundation recognized Gov. Mitch Daniels for his efforts to clean up Indiana’s child welfare system.

When a child dies in foster care, “the system” is blamed for not keeping the child and his family together. If a child dies in his own home, “the system” is blamed for failing to remove the child from harm’s way. Maybe this time the system is innocent. Maybe we should blame TaJanay’s death solely on the people who killed her.

Andrea Neal, a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org



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