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Aftermath of a Child Welfare Tragedy; A More Holistic Approach

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The tragic deaths of Marchella Pierce and Kymell Oram, two young children whose lives ended due to neglect and abuse while under the watch of NYC's Administration for Children's Services (ACS), have understandably raised concerns and doubts about the effectiveness of New York City's child welfare system. While outrage is warranted, coverage of these incidents has largely ignored the systemic challenges involved in protecting children from abuse -- not the least of which has been the profound public underinvestment in child protective services and family support services compounded by a general lack of coordination among government agencies and community-based organizations that provide care for our city's most vulnerable citizens.

Ensuring the safety and health of our city's children is challenging work on the best of days. It depends on the dedication, judgment, and skill of an unsung and underpaid group of professionals -- child protective workers. Unfortunately, ACS has suffered dramatic funding cuts in recent years. An analysis of 10 city agencies from 2009-2011 by the Independent Budget Office found that ACS received the deepest cut -- 26.4% -- among agencies, compared to 5.9% for the fire department and 6.7% for the police department.

We all understand that reducing fire and police department budgets impacts public safety. All things being equal, fewer police resources make it more difficult to fight crime, and fewer resources for the fire department will leave us more vulnerable to fires. We should not be surprised, then, that reducing the ACS budget restricts our ability to protect and serve New York City's vulnerable children. Child welfare workers -- both those who work for the city directly and those at private agencies like The Children's Aid Society that help the city fulfill its child protection mission -- rarely receive the respect we rightly give to our law enforcement, emergency, or military personnel. But make no mistake -- their jobs are as noble, as dangerous, and as important.

Sufficient funding enables the child welfare system to hire qualified professionals and caseworkers to devote the necessary amount of time to each child -- ensuring that no one falls through the cracks. It also allows us to invest in the kinds of supports that make vulnerable families strong; supports which, if provided early and consistently, can help families avoid the worst tragedies.

While funding is a crucial element of a more successful system, money alone is not enough.

As president and CEO of The Children's Aid Society, I've witnessed a wide range of systemic challenges that child welfare workers face. Children's Aid serves tens of thousands of New York City children every day, including more than 4,000 children and families in the child welfare system. Children's Aid is constantly assessing our own practice and looking for ways to improve our approach to child services. This rigorous and regular evaluation has inspired several observations that can be applied to the system as a whole.

The safety net that is supposed to support our most vulnerable neighbors is often compromised by a lack of coordination among the many agencies charged with supporting them. Schools, health care providers, after-school programs, benefits offices, and child welfare workers must share information and ensure alignment around the needs of the children we serve. New York City is taking important steps to improve how social service agencies share information about the families they serve. These efforts should be expanded to include the many nonprofit organizations that play a central role in keeping children healthy and safe.

We must also remember that children do not live in a vacuum. Children need us to support their families too. By providing legal, financial, mental health, and medical services for parents and helping them plan for their own futures by enrolling in GED programs or English language classes, we help to create a safer, healthier environment for their children.

A holistic and coordinated approach is necessary to truly ensure that heartbreaking tragedies, like those of Marchella and Kymell, are not repeated. All of the city's child-focused agencies and their nonprofit partners should be working collaboratively to share information and best practices. In order to ensure the conditions that will create opportunities for children and families to thrive, advocates must push an agenda that that stresses preventive services and comprehensive supports. The continued divestment in child protection services greatly exacerbates the serious systemic barriers that exist within the child welfare system. Let's not continue to make a hard job more difficult for those on the front lines.