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Child abuse experts: We can do better
Summit highlights need for more monitoring of at risk families
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Child service advocates and professionals met Friday in Gainesville to share ideas for helping children in Hall County who are most at risk of abuse and neglect.

The Northeastern Judicial Circuit Justice for Children held a summit at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center to discuss how to better meet the challenge of rehabilitating such children in the system.

Biostatistician Andrew Barclay put the issue in context by crunching the numbers.

Through the dense fog of data, studies and advice, Barclay noted a major takeaway: the need to protect kids who have been brought to the system’s attention but not placed in foster care, and thus are harder to reach.

"I tried to make the emphasis on in-home safety. Northeastern circuit is doing a pretty well on that, but maybe we could do a lot better, and most of the victims of maltreatment are kept in their homes," he said.

Barclay said it’s important for to resist the tendency to place these less visible children out of mind.

"I see this a lot. The foster parents are the faces we see. The kids that are home, in a way, we forget about them," he said.

Barclay gave an example of what better in-home monitoring would entail.

"Say the case was neglect. We had a child whose parent was working three jobs, and they were left home alone. So then going forward, that parent is going to get their mother to come in and help," he said. "We need to monitor that. We need to monitor that the parent is acting on that plan. It’s about monitoring going forward whether the risk has been mitigated."

And doing so takes a village, he said, beyond the child service agencies.

"We need the whole community monitoring them in a way. For example, there is a push to get trauma training with law enforcement officers, because particularly with kids, they can be traumatized by these situations," he said. "With House of Prayer, a SWAT team came in and removed the kids. That is very traumatic for a child, something they carry for the rest of their life."

The House of Prayer was a religious group found guilty of abusing several children in Atlanta in 2001.

Providing security and well-being for those kids is all the more important because of strict legal guidelines for taking children from their homes, as Judge Michael Key explained later in the summit.

"For good or bad, we operate within a legal system," he said. "We are bound by the law. Not by our guts. We invite ourselves in to these families’ lives; they didn’t invite us."

Many factors can contribute to an agency’s tendency to over-stretch authority, he said.

"I have been in situations where I cannot trust my local child agency. Lawyers for parties were ineffective or incompetent. People were not team players. People were ineffective case managers," Key said.

Outside forces can lead to an overzealous system as well. Barclay noted that media attention contributed in the early 2000s to what he called "foster care panic." He cited the case of Terrell Peterson, a 5-year-old Atlanta child who was abused and died in 1998 after years of investigation by child services.

"The Terrell Peterson case was on the cover of Time, ‘60 Minutes.’ The House of Prayer case in which 40 children were removed was on camera with CNN watching," he said. "Those two things reverberated across the state. From those, we had this big panic with case managers removing kids because they didn’t want to be that person on camera removing those kids. So that’s what I’d call a foster care panic."

The standard for removing a child from a home is based on constitutional law, most recently defined by the Supreme Court in 2010.

"Only if established by clear convincing evidence that the child is at risk of physical harm or emotional harm can a child be removed, not merely socioeconomic disadvantage," Barclay said.

No agency, Key said, can arbitrarily set a lower threshold.

"Factors like methamphetamine abuse can change the case load," he said. "But the standard should stay the same."

And there are consequences for an agency breaking that standard.

"Loss of funding forever — that is the harshest civil penalty that the law can impose on the state if a child is unnecessarily taken away," Key said.

That makes it all the more important for a safety net to catch those children, Barclay said.

"We need the resources and funding," he said. "Overstretched caseworkers don’t help anyone."