A Baltimore tragedy gives bill human face Aulton family story told at hearing on child welfare

November 21, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They lived to be only 2 and 4, and much of that time was spent in homeless shelters and motel rooms and with different men that their disturbed mother clung to here and there. When they died, it was at the hands of the woman who should have been their fiercest protector.

Yesterday, blown-up pictures of Natalie Aulton and Christina Lambert put a human face on an otherwise antiseptic Senate hearing room, where an Ohio senator sought support for legislation that could change the way social workers approach cases like theirs.

Republican Sen. Mike DeWine invited Sharon Aulton of Arnold, the girls' grandmother, to testify in support of a bill he introduced last summer to clarify a 1980 law that requires states to show they are making "reasonable efforts" to reunite families before putting children into foster care in order to receive federal money. The senator pointed to the girls' case as proof that giving a parent too many chances to abuse or neglect a child can have tragic results.

Christina and Natalie died Nov. 15, 1994, in a fire set in their Canton rowhouse by their mother, Rene Aulton, who told police that she had started the fire "to kill us all." She was convicted Feb. 24 on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

Yesterday, Sharon Aulton told of what she considers the broader tragedy -- that social service workers had repeated warnings that Rene Aulton could not take care of her daughters, yet ignored the signs with the help of the law.

"My granddaughters are dead because of a law that says that children should be reunified with their parents. The parents have all the rights, and the children none," Aulton said, her voice breaking. "My losses are many and my grief is overwhelming, and it could have all been prevented."

DeWine and child welfare experts who testified at yesterday's hearing of the Labor and Human Resources Committee said some social workers and judges misinterpreted the "reasonable efforts" requirement -- and were giving clearly unfit parents every opportunity to keep their children.

DeWine said his amendment would clarify that the best interests of the child, "including the child's health and safety," have to come first.

"We're sending too many children back to dangerous and abusive homes," the senator said.

But such a language change, child advocates say, might not bring about a different result in a case such as Rene Aulton's -- in which there had been repeated complaints of neglect, but no clear signs of imminent danger to the children.

Advocates warn of the pendulum swinging too far to the side of severing parents' ties with their children. In many cases, children who are taken from their parents have no relative to go to -- putting them into a foster system that already provides shelter for more than 450,000 children nationwide.

"We believe it's not an either-or in many cases," said Mary Lee Allen, director of the child welfare and mental health division of the Children's Defense Fund. "In many cases, you can best protect children by helping their parents protect them. The challenge of the child protection system is, we're really talking about individual decisions."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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