Lax welfare system leaves children behind

Children are forever in the news. Whether for their preternatural ability to say the darndest things under the gauze of anesthetic, or the fact that they keep popping out in record numbers (Octomom and Kate Gosselin look to be the most popular Halloween costumes this year), kid stories constantly pepper the news.

But with all the sound and fury surrounding celibrats in the types of gossip magazines best read (or used) on the toilet, more substantive issues have fallen by the wayside in the public spectrum.

First there was President Barack Obama’s continued support of the No Child Left Behind Act, which continues to leave children behind. Then, the budget cuts in already underfunded public schools across the country, which have left many districts with a severe deficit of teachers.

On Monday, Los Angeles activists brought another important issue to the table — the child welfare system.

A letter written by activists to US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cited Sunday’s Los Angeles Times article that reported that between January 2008 and August 2009, at least 268 children in the Los Angeles County child welfare system died.

Of these deaths, 76 were homicides, 35 were accidents and 16 were suicides. Eighteen deaths were directly linked to caretaker neglect or abuse.

The director of the Los Angeles Country Department of Children and Family Services, Trish Ploehn, resonded to complaints of an unstructured system last week in typical Band-Aid-on-a-broken-leg fashion. Ploehn told the Times that it is “very rare for a child to die of abuse or neglect while in the care or under the supervision of DCFS.”

Rarity is not the issue here. It doesn’t matter that 268 deaths in 20 months seem dwarfed by the fact that as many as 12,000 children are recommended to the system each month.

What is important is the fact that the system is flawed enough to let 268 children die, most by unnatural causes.

The manner of death betrays the need for a complete overhaul of the child welfare system in Los Angeles.

Officials are already taking the necessary step to review specific cases in which it is obvious that the foster home’s conditions were unduly neglectful.

There is much more to be done.

The regretful statistics demonstrate that children are pulled from their unsatisfactory home lives, only to be placed in foster homes that are equally unsuitable. This indicates the need for a much more rigorous screening process for potential foster parents. The state also needs to allocate more money for the general social worker budget, so that the regular checkups that are already mandated can be made more frequent, and more thorough.

The ball is the county’s court — denying the deaths as rare or unrepresentative of system flaws is merely an excusatory attempt to overlook the need to reform. Infrastructural changes can be made by officials, but the welfare system as a whole cannot make big strides without a budget.

Throwing money at a situation won’t make it go away. But allocating money with an intent to reform will help.

Lucy Mueller is a junior majoring in cinema-television production and the Daily Trojan’s editorial director.