In their Sept. 5 article “State had prior involvement in most child homicide cases in Maine,” Staff Writers Eric Russell and Kevin Miller do an excellent job of explaining the complex challenges faced by social workers when trying to protect children from the very real threat posed by the parents entrusted with their care. And the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is to be commended for releasing much clearer data about how children die and whether the families were known to the agency. The article also demonstrates the priority that the public, via its lawmakers and executive branch of government, gives to stopping child deaths – lawmakers via the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability research arm, and DHHS via its consultants.

But having been directly involved with this issue over a nearly 50-year career, including a stint on a recent presidential commission to stop child abuse deaths, I can safely predict that it could take, properly, years before the OPEGA and DHHS deep-dive recommendations – legal, administrative, budget–are fully implemented. I suggest two actions be taken now that could prevent child deaths – now.

First, the state must reduce its nearly 50 percent screen-out of referrals — nearly 12,000 children. All referrals involving children 2 years and under – and eventually all children – should receive an in-home assessment, either by DHHS or one of its community-based allies. The majority of children killed are under this age, which speaks to their vulnerability to blunt-force trauma: punching, kicking and shaking. This universal investigation concept is not without precedence: While most calls to fire departments prove to be false, they still investigate all calls, fearing that if they are wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic. Ditto child welfare.

Second, many of the children most likely to be killed are already known by DHHS and, indeed, may already be in its custody, remaining at home or not. This isn’t surprising, given issues such as inexperienced workers and supervisors; excessive caseloads; the inability to remain current with unstable families, and limited support services. DHHS, drawing from a wide array of retired and semiretired citizens, should conduct “desktop” audits of all open cases, starting with those children 2 years and under.

The audit teams – a child protection worker, a supervisor and two or three community allies, such as retired family law attorneys, nurses, mental health workers and law enforcement – would review each case to determine if current child safety plans were still appropriate for the family. Not for purposes of finding fault, but operating on the principle that more pairs of eyes are better than one. For instance, the former police officer, drawing upon his own network, might ask if the worker was aware that a child abuser just released from prison was back in the home, and if so, should that prompt a different state intervention, including an immediate visit to the family and determining whether the mother now had the ability to prevent the child’s re-abuse. Similar insights would be derived from others on the audit team with different perspective.

Some will find these suggestions to be intrusive. No doubt. But in complicated and dangerous situations, the state – the public – should err on the side of caution, on behalf of the child.

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