Saving the children

October 15, 1990

Protective services for children is something of a contradiction in terms. Despite its intentions, the system cannot deal adequately with the skyrocketing number of cases of child abuse and neglect. Or, for that matter, with the disastrous fallout of its inadequate response.

Nine out of 10 people who end up in prison were physically or emotionally abused in childhood. John Thanos was one of them. So was John Wayne Gacy. Pick any heinous crime; the odds are that the anger and hostility and lack of conscience that undermined it can be traced to child abuse. For all the socio-babble, however, it comes down to this: We pay a high social and fiscal price every time a child is beaten up or raped.

Now comes the United Way with a common-sense idea: Integrate the work of all the quasi-autonomous agencies that are supposed to support the family -- social services, protective services, juvenile services, legal services and penal services -- so that money can be used more effectively, and children can be saved before they become dangerously disturbed adults. The notion of a system-wide approach to combating child abuse took root today at a United Way conference that brought Andrew Vachss, an outspoken New York lawyer and child advocate, together with a panel of Marylanders who work in different service areas to talk about working together.

Revamping social service delivery is still a nascent -- and untested -- notion, and it will take time and political courage to see it through. Nonetheless, it is painfully clear that the current system is not working, and that difficult though it may be, Maryland has little choice but to rethink the ways in which it tries to protect its children.

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