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Children victimized by system secrecy

By Wendy McElroy
web posted January 19, 2004

Denise Moore is the Indiana caseworker who recommended taking 4-year-old Anthony Bars away from a loving foster mother and placed him, instead, with a couple who starved and beat him to death over a 10-month period.

Had Moore bothered with the required background check, she would have known that the new "home" had a long record of abuse within the child protective services and that the new "father" had a felony battery conviction for savagely beating his own daughter with an extension cord.

Earlier this month, D. Sue Roberson, director of the Indiana Personnel Department, announced that no disciplinary action would be taken against Moore. Why? Citing confidentiality laws, Roberson added, "I am not at liberty to discuss the findings."

Days later, Cheryl Sullivan, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, stated that disciplinary action is still possible. But she affirmed confidentiality and painted her agency as the true victim.

Sullivan's statements came in the wake of a four-month investigation by TV-station WTHR. It came after a court case that convicted Anthony's killers, after criticism from Rep. Phil Hinkle and Gov. Joe Kernan, and heart-breaking questions from Florence Hurst, the foster mom who spent 15 months caring for Anthony. She wanted to adopt Anthony and his sister before Moore recommended their removal.

Why? Again that word.

Race may have been a factor. Hurst was white. Anthony was black.

The circumstances surrounding Anthony's death become more wrenching with examination. But dwelling on them misses the larger point: the children abused by CPS are not merely the fault of "bad" caseworkers. They are not restricted to Indiana. The bodies of dead children demand we ask: is CPS harming - not helping -- children?

I say "bodies" because Anthony is not an isolated incident. Almost one year to the day after Anthony's death, 7-year-old Mark Adrian Norris II's was found starved and covered with bedsores in an Indiana house, which was set on fire to disguise his death-through-neglect.

Mark's caseworker, Michael Warrum neglected his required monthly visits to the home and did not follow up on complaints that Mark was being starved. For his complicity in Mark's death, Warrum lost his civil service job. And, presumably, his pension.

The problem is not exclusive to Indiana. The carelessness with which the Florida CPS "loses" children became a national scandal last year. In California, even the state's Department of Social Services admits families are being aggressively torn apart and children unnecessarily placed in foster care. The problem is federal and systemic.

A column that questions the fundamental value of the current CPS will elicit outraged feedback from social workers who protest that they sincerely care for children. I believe them without question. For one thing, I have a sister-in-law working within that system.

The problem is not the intentions of individuals but the structure and rules of the CPS, such as confidentiality. As long as those rules remain, the institution will harm children.

Consider an analogy: a factory with machinery and procedures designed to build airplanes. A worker on the factory floor loudly protests that he is there to build motor boats. But, as long as he uses the factory's machines and follows its rules, he will produce airplanes whatever his intentions. The structure of the institution defines the product, not the worker's intentions.

What is necessary to protect other Anthonys within the system?

First and foremost: transparency. Both Roberson and Sullivan drew a shroud of silence across Anthony's body. Confidentiality was never meant to hinder the investigation into dead children. A threatened bureaucracy is using silence to immunize itself. As Rep. Hinkle has said, "You cannot hide behind confidentiality when there's been an obvious wrongdoing."

But the actions of the Indiana CPS amount to more than this. They are attempting to shift the blame for dead children away from their own policies onto the shoulders of society.

Sullivan, before the Indiana Commission on Abused and Neglected Children and Their Families, asked, "Does it make more sense for the child protective service workers to be sitting outside a juvenile justice courtroom or located with the police?" She suggested that caseworkers should be protected from "illegal drug labs" and other threats by being further removed from public access by being housed in police stations or courthouses. Who protects Anthony from them?

The CPS does not need more confidentiality, more difficult access and less accountability. There is no overriding reason for silence: the deaths of Mark and Anthony do not threaten national security or compromise the witness protection program. They raise questions that threaten the structure of an institution that may be complicit in killing the very children it was constructed to protect.

Short of deconstructing CPS, the solution is more -- not less -- accessibility and the imposition of criminal liability for the gross misconduct of caseworkers and superiors.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada. Copyright © 2004 Wendy McElroy.

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