On an early June morning, an eight-month-old girl was taken to a Florida emergency room, where she died four hours later.
Investigators found the baby's family had been the focus of nine child abuse reports in the past four years. The mother was charged with beating the baby to death.
At no time had the baby or her four siblings been removed from the home, nor had anyone considered terminating the mother's parental rights.
That it took a homicide to focus attention and force action points to a crisis in America's child welfare system: It is biased toward biological parents, even when they have demonstrated a lack of fitness to care for their children.
The truth is, children are not always better off with their biological parents.
Child welfare administrators, caseworkers, and advocates maintain that their primary concern is child safety, that they try to reunify families only if the child's safety can be assured.
In reality, the social services and judicial systems continually favor the rights of biological parents in child welfare actions, as illustrated in two recent cases.
In Montgomery County, Md., a family court judge recently ordered a child returned to her mother, who was still serving time in a halfway house on a conviction of killing another of her children.
In Pennsylvania, a judge has ordered two children "reunited" with a father who has never given financial support or spent more than a week caring for them.
This system-wide bias is well-intentioned.
It is based on the notion that unfit parents can improve if they get enough social services - parenting classes and economic resources - and that children are always better off with their biological parents.
But good intentions aren't enough, as statistics show. According to data from the American Public Human Services Association and the US Department of Health and Human Services:
*Nearly 600,000 children are in foster care on any given day, mostly due to abuse and neglect. Nearly one-third of these children are younger than five.
*The majority of children in foster care - 62 percent - are reunified with their parents. But within a year, half of them are returned to foster care because of new instances of abuse or neglect.
*Less than a third of foster children are ever successfully reunited with their parents.
*As many as 20,000 children "age out" of the child welfare system each year when they turn 18, most of whom have been in and out of the system much of their lives.
Legal reforms, such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, have increased the number of children adopted from the child welfare system. But adoptions still represent only 10 to 12 percent of the annual dispositions of children in foster care.
Effective reforms must go much further.
The dirty secret of the child welfare system is that it provides only the following three services: investigations of child abuse and neglect reports, temporary out-of-home placement for children, and reunification services.
The system is not designed to target and identify high-risk cases, provide close monitoring of those cases, or match services to family and individual needs and readiness to change.
The system needs to provide services that assure consistency and permanency to the hundreds of thousands of children in the next decade who will not be permanently reunited with their biological parents.
More children need to be adopted.
If children cannot be reunified, then parental rights should be terminated early enough to assure the children can be adopted.
Permanent guardianship, by relatives and even orphanages, needs to be considered a viable option for permanent placement.
And time is of the essence. Case planning and placement decisions need to be made using a child's sense of time. Children's permanence and development must not be held hostage for years while waiting for biological parents to change.
To its credit, the child welfare system is effective in 20 to 30 percent of cases, and some reunifications are in the best interests of children.
But what of the children in the other 70 to 80 percent of cases? They are either to be returned to unsafe homes or to be shuffled between home and foster care with little hope of permanent and consistent caretaking.
The child welfare system can be reformed only if it forsakes the traditional ideologies that all parents can change if provided with enough services, and that children always do best when cared for by their biological parents.
These antiquated and sometimes dangerous assumptions need to be replaced with a child-centered system with a goal of safe and permanent caretaking of all endangered and maltreated children.
*Richard J. Gelles teaches social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. He wrote 'The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives' (Basic Books, 1996).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society