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Business Casual: The Children's Hour

I can’t help myself – I still extend my right arm across the passenger seat of the car when I have to brake suddenly. In my mind’s eye, there is a young girl sitting there, needing that gesture of protection. The reality, of course, is that she is a grown woman now, off somewhere driving her own car, making sure her own child is safe. But old habits die hard.

In matters large and small, whether holding a hand to cross the street or keeping close watch over playground activity, the urge to protect and safeguard is strong. It’s what parents do for their children – it’s natural and instinctive.

When something blunts or twists that instinct, it is mind-boggling and heart-wrenching to try and fathom the whys and hows, to comprehend what happens when parents don’t simply fail their children, but turn from protectors to instruments of harm.

The tragic stories of two young children who died in the metro area last fall, allegedly at the hands of their own parents, are incomprehensible. Our minds simply don’t want to wrap themselves around the details of children being physically tortured and drowned in a bathtub or starved to death then burned in a trashcan.

 And yet: Twelve-year-old Eric Forbes died a horrible drowning death in Paulding County, and a little girl, Emani Moss, only 10, died apparently of starvation in Gwinnett – her burned body was found in the trash. Eric’s father is in jail, charged with murder, and Emani’s father and stepmother are charged in her death.

In both instances there were observant teachers who suspected abuse. Authorities were notified; reports were made to the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services – DFACS – which is said to have conducted interviews and investigations.

But somehow the children remained with their parents in grave situations that led to their deaths.

Predictably, the head of DFCS, Dr. Sharon Hill, has said she is saddened by the deaths and is determined to hold her agency accountable, figure out what went wrong and what needs to happen to prevent more such tragedies.

Well, of course. Anyone with a heart is devastated by such grim happenings, and anyone in a position of authority would be ready to seek answers. And that should happen – even though the information won’t help young Eric or Emani. Still, it’s hard to get past the sense that we pretty much know what to expect from such an investigation, that we have heard it before.

Yes, yes, there are procedures, regulations, protocols in place. There are rights of children, rights of parents – removing a child from parental custody is a serious matter.

There are tight budgets, limited resources, overburdened caseworkers and no shortage of gray areas.

There are plenty of reasons why things can go wrong, why the answer isn’t always clear-cut. There is human fallibility to be factored in, there are legal limits that come into play, there are miscommunications, there are breakdowns in the chain of command, perhaps bucks that get passed; there are complicated, emotionally charged situations to resolve.

But keep in mind, there are also two dead children. There were people who knew they were in danger well before their deaths. Why couldn’t something be done?

Of course, the people and agencies who failed them are sorry. Who wouldn’t be?

But at some point, couldn’t someone have stepped up? Made a few waves, rocked a couple of boats, taken a risk? Couldn’t someone have set the rulebook aside for a few minutes and tried to do something to prevent two vulnerable children from horrible deaths?

Couldn’t someone have shifted the focus from what couldn’t be done to what could be done?

Yes, it’s easy for me to say. I understand that individuals are limited in their authority, that the law leans in the direction of keeping families together, that good foster homes are at a premium. But isn’t anybody on the children’s side?

Clearly something or some things need to change. Someone has to have the authority to act on the children’s behalf and the will to use it. I don’t buy the notion that nobody is at fault or that everybody is at fault – that’s the same as saying no one is responsible.

It’s time to stop being so careful with everything except children’s lives.

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