Caring For Our Caylees: A Call To Help Struggling Families

07/07/2011 10:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

It seems that good parenting and justice both eluded Caylee Anthony, the beautiful smiling little girl captured in photos that were shown endlessly during the trial of her mother Casey Anthony. Casey was acquitted of Caylee's murder, but even so, it's clear that the adults in Caylee's life let her down both in life and death. We should all learn from this tragic tale of neglect where adults made serious mistakes and missteps at the expense of an innocent child.

This sad story also points out how we as a nation can do better for our collective children. For Caylee, being the daughter of a very young, immature mother with no parenting experience turned disastrous. Providing education and support to struggling and inexperienced parents can help alleviate some of the stressors these families face.

The real lesson is that more emphasis and spending must be put into child abuse prevention programs -- such as parenting education and home visiting efforts that support and teach parents to be the best parents they can be. Home visiting programs -- like the highly successful Healthy Families America -- provide in home, weekly visits by trained professionals who demonstrate positive parenting techniques, help connect parents -- often single and young -- to other community resources that can move them toward self-sufficiency and reduce stress.

But not every child is the beneficiary of parenting education. For those children lucky enough to survive abuse and neglect, a well-intentioned but disparate system of services awaits them -- which acts as a surrogate parent until their actual parents can either do the job or substitutes can be arranged.

The child welfare system -- which currently directly cares for more than the 400,000 U.S. children -- has thousands of dedicated and trained workers who are juggling large caseloads. The child welfare system isn't one system, but rather a collection of systems and services run by towns, states, and the federal government as well nonprofits, volunteers and churches. This patchwork system of surrogates has helped many children over the years; but we recognize that this system of services doesn't serve vulnerable children as well as it could.

That's why the Child Welfare League of America's (CWLA) role as a standard setter for the child welfare industry is very important. But that alone isn't enough to ensure the safety, health and welfare of children who are abused, neglected, or abandoned. What we need -- which is something CWLA and other industry and government leaders are focused on -- is to find ways to connect the different systems, so that children who are struggling get a seamless set of services that will protect them and set them on a good course.

By aligning child welfare, health, domestic relations courts, juvenile justice, housing, and educational systems, families and children stand a better chance of getting the help they need. Also children won't get lost in the process, which will ensure a better system of care and better results (with potentially less cost).

However, this system primarily focuses on children after the harm is done. All of us working in child welfare recognize that the most effective effort to protect children is through prevention. "A system" is a poor substitute for a good parent, which is why prevention must become the first stop in the system.

For sweet Caylee, better parenting skills taught by caring, trained professionals could have been a life saver. Unfortunately that didn't happen, so we must use this sad tale -- and so many others like it -- to learn, educate, and change in hopes of preventing more sad endings.