A push to focus on worst cases in child abuse

After a 7-year-old's death, New York debates whether to adopt a 'dual track' approach, which has support in other states.

Calls to New York's child-abuse hot line have spiked dramatically ever since Nixzmary Brown was buried.

The 7-year-old girl, allegedly killed by her stepfather in her Brooklyn home this month, captured the hearts and minds of New Yorkers who never want to see such a tragedy happen again.

But now the city is left with the tall task of distinguishing the serious cases of abuse from reports of neglect. This is one of the most controversial challenges facing social welfare systems nationwide.

A growing number of states are passing laws that alter the way authorities investigate a child-abuse report, creating what is essentially a child-welfare triage system. Rather than treat all reports equally, the approach divides them into two groups.

This dual-track approach aims to ease systems overburdened with poverty-related neglect reports and focus aggressive tactics on the rarer cases of abuse.

"What it is attempting to do is to respond in a more helpful way ... by supporting parents in their responses rather than automatically approaching it from a criminal-investigation standpoint," says Lynn Usher, professor of social work at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The approach has been adopted in various states, including Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, and North Carolina. In Minnesota, one recent study shows the law improved the safety of children by providing better services for families such as food. "If we are able to address the needs of families who are reported ... in a positive and helpful way, we are able to reduce child maltreatment and improve family well-being," says Erin Sullivan Sutton of Minnesota's Child Safety and Permanency Office.

In North Carolina, 10 counties have implemented the program, and by 2006, all counties in the state will have the option of implementing the dual-track approach. David Atkinson, a local operations manager of the state's Division of Social Services, says 60 to 70 percent of its caseload involves neglect of children living in poor conditions. "We realized that as a system we could handle those cases ... in a family-centered way."

So far, employees of North Carolina's child-welfare services are applauding the program. "Social workers are now feeling like they can make a difference," says Adele Spitz Roth of the Durham Family Initiative.

Controversy over how child welfare services should investigate a family stems from the 1960s, according to Karen Schimke, the former head of Buffalo's child services, who has over 35 years' experience in child welfare. The debate then, she says, was whether child-abuse cases should be handled by police or child-welfare services. Child services gained the upper hand, but as the system became codified, it was increasingly akin to "law enforcement in a welfare agency," says Ms. Schimke.

Sharwline Nicholson knows firsthand the potentially negative impact of an aggressive child welfare system. In 1999, Ms. Nicholson lost her two children to foster care without a court order. "My children were snatched away from me because I was a victim of domestic violence. They were taken from my home without any investigation," Nicholson says. Nicholson won her son and daughter back, along with a civil judgment against New York City for the wrongful removal of her children.

"The problem is that [a law-enforcement approach] has significant chilling effects on families' willingness to engage.... It is organized around placing blame and identifying the perpetrator," says Schimke, who is now lobbying for a dual-track approach in New York.

That lobbying effort failed most recently in 2005, when a dual-track law was passed by the state Legislature but was vetoed by the governor. In his veto message to the Senate, Gov. George Pataki cited New York City's opposition to the bill.

The city's main fear with dual track is that an abused child would be mishandled as a neglect case. In testimony opposing the dual-track bill last year, the city's Administration for Children's Services delivered the following statement: "Our current system addresses the core issues that the dual-track bill seeks to address without running a risk" of wrongly addressing a case of abuse.

That risk exists with or without dual track, as apparent with the Brown case. Last week, the Kings County District Attorney in Brooklyn indicted Nixzmary 's mother and stepfather with second-degree murder. According to the district attorney, the child's body showed signs of long-term abuse - some of it investigated by the city.

In the aftermath of the girl's death, authorities disciplined six employees involved in the investigation into her abuse. On Tuesday, the Mayor announced a $16 million plan to hire new child-welfare staff and increase cooperation between police, schools, and child services.

Some advocates of the dual-track approach say serious cases like Nixzmary's would receive more attention. But others caution against universal support for dual track, particularly in a city known for vast improvements in child protective services over the past decade.

"You can do this right whether you have dual track or not," says Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. "What they are trying to do in New York City ... [is] infuse the system with better training and better respect for the parents," he says.

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