Dead kids in Washington 

Last summer we had the horrific story from Philadelphia in which 52 children died while under the care of the city Division of Human Services.

Now, we read about four children in nearby Washington, whose gruesome deaths can only be attributed to another meltdown in the chain of responsibility in a city’s social service network.

According to CNN, this is how the lives of those children ended while the system’s safeguards unraveled:

Mayor Adrian Fenty called the lapses “egregious,” saying at a news conference that social workers prematurely closed their files on a family that struggled on the fringes since arriving in the city in December 2005.

The parents asked for food stamps and were turned down. They asked for housing assistance and were turned down again, officials said.

And, during repeated contacts with city agencies, there were warning signs that the family was in deep trouble, Fenty said.

Those red flags included reports from a nurse in July 2006 that both parents were substance abusers and that the children were living in a van, the mayor said. The case was closed because the family did not have a fixed address — the opposite of what should have happened, Fenty said.

In March, the children stopped attending school after their father died in a Maryland hospice.

In May, the mayor said, a suspicious school social worker alerted Metropolitan Police that the mother might be holding a truant child “hostage.” But the officer reported back that the children appeared to be healthy and were being home-schooled.

Then the family dropped off the social service agency radar.

As in Philadelphia, the intentions of the social workers, nurses, case workers, truant officers, and other who are the face of the “system” were well-meaning. Maybe a few ended up in these jobs due to patronage or some other loop-hole that let them assume such an important role in the lives of children at risk. But by and large, these are dedicated men and women. The go into this type of work because they care about kids, their communities, they are sincerely trying to do good.

But something is going terribly wrong in Philadelphia, in Washington, in other large and small cities where children end up deserted, mistreated, and dead.

Most management experts will tell you that good workers who do bad work end up that way because they are being mismanaged. Either the managers themselves are incompetent, or the processes they have set up to manage the organization are ineffective, broken, archaic, you name it.

When you think of mismanagement and bad managers, two causes come to mind. The first is that incompetent people are being allowed to manage because they have an “in” somewhere. In other words, they are being given these positions of responsibility because they know someone — usually some pol who is saying “thank you” for a political job well done. It has nothing to do with management skills or experience.

How do you fix that problem?

Look at the source: who is doing the hiring? Who does that person report to? Who is giving the green light to political hacks who become the executioners of hundreds of children in our cities? Answer those questions for your own city and you will be taking a giant leap towards reforming your system.

The other potential root of the problem is that citizens — the people who pay for these services — really don’t care. They would rather see a few kids die than pay more for social services. After all, they aren’t their kids. They are just faceless poor kids, mostly minorities, life’s inevitable losers.  So who cares if fewer of these kids survive and grow into menacing teenage hoods, who then start gunning down each other or — God forbid — shooting up white middle class families in the ‘burbs?

Money and patronage are the twin devils here. The social service network is at the breaking point, people are overworked, the system is broken, and no one wants to pay to fix it. Really, it is a form of genocide: this deliberate choice made by the “haves” to withhold assistance from the “have nots,” knowing that death and misery will be the outcome.

When we read these stories — when I read these stories — I have to ask what my role really is. It might seem that my hands are clean. They are not. I might be hundreds of miles away, but the blood of those four children in Washington, the 52 dead in Philadelphia, that blood stains my hands, my clothes, my conscience as well.

It’s hard to remember the role I play when I am angry about my tax bill and want my town officials to cut corners so that I can live a little easier. Angry about taxes? That’s as natural, as human, as American as turning the front page of the newspaper when I read about another dead kid from the city.

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