Not a day goes by that the media doesn’t cover a case of a child who was fatally abused, such as the tragic death of Zymere Perkins, a six-year old boy from Harlem. It’s estimated that between 1,500 and 3,000 children in the United States will die this year at the hands of parents or guardians who were supposed to protect them. The majority are so vulnerable, younger than four years old. They die from abuse due to beatings and neglect - which includes starvation, inadequate medical care and unsafe sleeping arrangements or from accidents after being left alone. According to a 2016 report by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, many babies die from abuse or neglect without it ever being reported to child protective services.
My hope is that tragic stories such as Zymere’s serve as a call to action for everyone to learn the signs of child abuse and neglect and how to make a report if they believe a child is at risk. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep children safe. This must be a public/community partnership and a shared responsibility to protect children.
Working in the child protection field is very rewarding. It can also be demanding, difficult and draining. As the leader of the first child protection agency in the world, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, I want to acknowledge all the professionals who work for Child Protective Services throughout the United States.
To put the scope of their work into context, these statistics might be helpful. In 2014, 3.6 million referrals alleging maltreatment were made across the United States to local state Child Protective Services involving 6.6 million children. Approximately 3.2 million cases received an investigation. Of those investigated, 702,000 children were determined to be victims of child abuse and neglect.
At the New York City level, in 2014, there were roughly 89,000 reports made alleging maltreatment. Child protective services conducted over 55,000 investigations involving approximately 84,700 children. The indication rate, which reports substantiated cases of abuse, was about 39 percent, representing approximately 32,000 children.
Unfortunately, these numbers, although alarmingly large, are not the full picture of the problem. Not all states report abuse and neglect the same way, and not all child abuse fatalities are named as such. The death of a toddler who drowns in a pool may be classified as an accident in one area and as child neglect in another. There are certain territories that don’t report statistics in any systematic way at all. Many other cases of child abuse and neglect go unreported or undetected.
The need to respond to a constant influx of reported cases places non-stop demands on Child Protective Service workers. The investigations can be very complicated, time-sensitive, anxiety provoking and at times downright dangerous. One worker told me that a mother’s boyfriend punched her and threatened to kill her when she went to remove a child. She had to return with the police. She also lived in that neighborhood and feared retaliation for doing her job. I know of cases where staff have been attacked by dogs in the household they were visiting, shot at by family members, pushed down flights of stairs, threatened with knives and stalked. They are doing their work with the vision and mission to protect children. The perils of their job rarely make the news, but it comes with the territory – and often they must go back to these homes and neighborhoods to complete their work.
I’m sure there are days when they must feel like they’ve had enough, but thankfully, most hang in there.
The stress level that child protective service workers endure is daunting. They are constantly dealing with trauma that I characterize as “man’s inhumanity to man.” Research shows that this type of interpersonal violence and trauma has the potential to produce the highest levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms in victims. This victimization has a “ripple effect,” spreading out to all those who are involved with the child. The impact of exposure to others’ pain and suffering must be acknowledged. Staff may experience secondary traumatic stress symptoms too.
For those of us involved in child protection, we probably understood in general the personal fortitude needed and risks involved when we signed on. But, more often than not, we didn’t realize how deeply we could be affected by bearing constant witness to the intense suffering of children. It takes a very strong and determined professional to do this work day in and day out.
I have also had the privilege of hearing many of the “prideful moments” of child protective staff from New York City and throughout this country. Children being reunited with their parents after a removal for neglect, a mother finally entering a substance abuse program, a letter written by a grateful grandmother following the kinship placement of her grandson, a failure-to-thrive baby reaching developmental milestones, an adolescent showing up at a CPS office to say “thank you” to the worker for “being there,” are just a few examples.
Child protective staff are depended upon to protect children at risk – that is their mission. However, it’s important to realize that the parents and guardians of children who are abused and neglected are often struggling themselves. Risk factors include mental illness, their own childhood traumas, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, crime-ridden neighborhoods, poverty and substandard housing. This certainly doesn’t excuse harming children, but it clarifies why no single government agency acting alone can address all of these issues. Ideally, a trauma-informed, collaborative, care-coordinated response that includes medical/mental health, substance abuse treatment, child protective services, education, law enforcement and housing services should be involved. Communities, neighbors and families could further strengthen this safety net for children at risk. Everyone must be involved in protecting children. The recently released Final Report of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities echoes these concerns.
We need and rely on child protective service workers who do this job, day in and day out. But let’s all make a pledge to get involved by learning the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect and how to make a report. You may save a child’s life.
For more information on keeping children safe visit www.nyspcc.org.
Dr. Mary L. Pulido is president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children New York and executive director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.