Family or Village?

Last winter, after Awilda Lopez was arrested and charged with killing her young daughter, Elisa Izquierdo, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani acted swiftly. He pulled the Child Welfare Agency out of New York City's welfare bureaucracy and created a new department under a separate commissioner. It was an important step, giving more prominence to the issue of abused children.

But, as Mr. Giuliani pointed out last week, even the best-run government agencies can't protect every abused child in every instance. He made his remark in response to the death of a four-year-old Manhattan girl, Nadine Lockwood. Her mother was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for starving her daughter.

Critics say Giuliani has shifted course. After Elisa's death, he promised to make child welfare a priority and said he wanted to be held accountable for the department's performance. After Nadine's death, he said people too often look to government to solve problems they could - and should - solve themselves.

The mayor was reacting to two tragic, highly publicized cases. In both instances, the child-welfare agency's investigations were flawed. But Giuliani is right that the same tough questions that are asked of the government should be asked of those closest to the child. What role, for example, did Nadine's father play? He sporadically visited his seven children - why didn't he notice something was terribly wrong?

The larger question - a favorite of Hillary Rodham Clinton's and touched upon by Bob Dole - is whether it takes a village or a family to raise a child. The logical answer, in many cases, is both. And if both fail? Build a better bridge between village and family.

One way this might work is by developing neighborhood-based child-protection services. Such an effort is under way in various forms around the country. Nicholas Scoppetta, commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, is proposing a similar initiative for New York City. The idea is to identify the most troubled neighborhoods and appoint a "lead agency" - a church or clinic, for instance - to work with families. The city-welfare agency would still pay the bills and conduct initial investigations of abuse.

An initiative of this type would take time and money. It still would not protect every abused child. And it would not relieve the child welfare department of its primary responsibility. What it would do is bring some of the responsibility closer to home.

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