A child's best interests Refining the law: Senate bill must not be the only step in improving child welfare efforts.

November 26, 1996

ONE YEAR AGO this week, a raven-haired 6-year-old named Elisa Izquierdo died in New York City when her crack-addicted mother rammed her, head-first, into a wall. It was the culmination of years of torture, the signs of which had been reported to child welfare authorities. News of the murder went national, provoking outrage. Why did social workers not rescue this child? How bad a parent does one have to be for that to happen? How many chances should parents get?

These questions -- all related to federal child welfare laws stressing family unification -- still have not been answered. Now the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would clarify that a child's safety must take precedence over family reunification. The bill has attracted some local attention because the sponsor, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, asked the grandmother of two Baltimore sisters, ages 2 and 4, killed by their mother when she set their rowhouse on fire, to speak on behalf of his bill.

Nationally, evidence shows that some case workers have taken the law's call for "reasonable efforts" to keep families together to mean that children should never be taken from their parents. This has resulted in some inexcusable mistakes, such as the one that doomed Elisa.

The DeWine bill clarifies what ought to be obvious: that there are times when family unification is not the best course, that parental rights should be taken from those who commit certain crimes against their offspring.

But the bill will not provide easy answers, especially in situations involving neglect and bad parenting as opposed to physical abuse. These account for most child welfare cases, including Natalie Aulton's and Christina Lambert's. They were victims of chronic neglect that nonetheless did not foreshadow mortal danger.

Case workers walk a fine line trying to ascertain between less-than-ideal and dangerous parenting. The DeWine bill might have helped Natalie and Christina. The best thing for children like them, however, is to goad elected leaders to provide case workers with enough resources to devote proper attention to each family's situation. They then may have the insight to know when poor parenting has turned into something potentially far worse.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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