Don’t take the wrong lessons after Hartford toddler’s death | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Following the death of 2-year-old Corneliuz Williams, who fell from a window in his third-floor Hartford apartment building last month, many are rightly asking how this tragedy could have been prevented and how Connecticut can protect children like Corneliuz going forward.

Attention has focused on what the Department of Children and Families might have done differently. DCF had received many reports about the family and had an open case at the time of Corneliuz’s fall. Police allegedly found the apartment in poor condition, with moldy food, trash, and cockroaches. The Office of the Child Advocate also is investigating the boy’s death.

But we shouldn’t take the wrong lessons from Corneliuz’s death.

Research finds that following high-profile child fatalities, child welfare agencies respond by removing more children from their homes in a “foster care panic.” There’s no evidence, however, that this makes children safer. Instead, such panics leave more children and their parents traumatized by family separation, and spread child welfare workers even thinner.

When I shadowed Connecticut DCF investigators as they met with families like Ms. Frank’s for my research, I saw a number of cases involving poor housing conditions. In one, the investigator and I could smell a pungent odor from the hallway, perhaps cat urine. Inside, we met a couple concerned about their three young children. The threadbare carpet was covered with black splotches, and the mother acknowledged that she didn’t always have a chance to immediately pick up food her toddlers threw on the ground.

Afterwards, the investigator told me that the condition of the carpets concerned her, but she recognized the family’s financial challenges. “I just think that life kind of escapes them day to day,” she said. She hoped that getting the twin 3-year-olds into preschool would give the parents time in their days to get organized. She wrote to a local furniture store requesting a gift card to purchase beds for the children.

In other cases, DCF investigators brought over cleaning supplies or tried to help families get into alternate housing. When parents articulated mental health needs at the root of conditions like animal feces and old food on the ground, DCF worked to connect them with appropriate services.

Rather than preventing tragedies like Corneliuz’s, rushing to remove children in these cases will inflict needless trauma on children and families. Moreover, parents’ fears that DCF will take their children due to home conditions keep them from reaching out for the help they need before conditions deteriorate.

DCF has expressed a commitment to keeping families together, and has worked, impressively, to decrease foster care caseloads and refer families to community supports.

Now the rubber meets the road, as DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes and her team face their first big test. Will they waver in the face of pressure? Or will they uphold their commitments to child safety through family preservation?

It’s also a test for the public: Will we rush to blame DCF for leaving Corneliuz and his siblings at home? Or will we take a step back to see the larger picture?

What could have prevented the accident? Childcare, or resources for babysitting help, as Ms. Frank had to choose between driving for Uber to support her family and leaving her four younger children with her 12-year-old. (The Expanded Child Tax Credit, recently allowed to expire, helped families like Ms. Frank’s avoid such difficult choices.) Pediatricians and community groups educating families about the dangers of window falls and how to prevent them. Landlords installing window guards when tenants have young children. Pressuring DCF to take away more children is tempting but ultimately leads us astray in ways that have grave consequences for children and families.

Kelley Fong is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming book Investigating Families: Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services, based on her ethnographic research in Connecticut and Rhode Island.


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