Previous month's column | May/June Contents | Gazette Home

../1198/From%20the%20editor%20overline

Saving Lives
   

Little Progress on Child Abuse. The headline for document 136 of 387 that resulted from my Lexis-Nexis search (keyword: child abuse and death; additional terms: new york) jumped off the screen -- an apt summary of the other 386 articles from major newspapers in the last five years whose headlines began with phrases like "Father Held," "Mother Sentenced" and "Agency Faulted."
   I had done the search initially to check my memory of the case of a six-year old girl named Elisa Izquierdo, whose history of abuse and ultimate murder by her mother -- made possible by a combination of poor judgment, institutional negligence and unthinking adherence to policy -- became a potent symbol of the failure of the child-welfare system in New York City and prompted a major agency restructuring.
   My wife and I happened to be living in New York when this story broke in late 1995; similar tragedies have occurred across the United States. In fact, as it played out publicly, the aftermath of Elisa Izquierdo's death was typical. The pattern is described in characteristically blunt terms by School of Social Work professor Richard Gelles in senior editor Samuel Hughes' cover story, "The Children's Crusaders": "Child dies, hearings are held, calls for more case-workers, for more funding -- and for the head of the agency to be replaced ... Guess what? That doesn't work in child welfare." And, indeed, the headline I began by quoting appeared over an editorial in the August 17, 1997, New York Times -- the subject of which was a court-appointed panel's finding that the revamped agency's performance "fell below legal standards and standards of good practice."
   Gelles, who holds the Joanne T. and Raymond B. Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, is the most outspoken member of a group working to establish an interdisciplinary Center for Child Protection at Penn. Bringing in faculty from medicine, law and nursing, as well as social work, and drawing on a cadre of sympathetic children's advocates at the University and elsewhere, the hoped-for center (which Gelles would direct) aims to replace the current child-welfare system with one in which the best interests of the child -- as opposed to those of adult clients and/or the bureaucracy itself -- really are paramount.
   Can such a new paradigm be widely accepted and adopted? If it is, will it make a difference? Undoing the damage caused by the current system seems a mammoth undertaking. And yet, what I remember most from reading the story of Elisa's Izquierdo's brief life, its misery broken by fleeting glimpses of something better, possible rescues that never came to pass, is not a sense of her fate's awful inevitability but of how easily she might have been saved -- if only, somewhere along the line, someone had made the right choices. A better system can at least make that more likely.
   I did not do a computer search for articles about alcohol abuse on college and university campuses, but I have no doubt one would have turned up a great many in the last few years. In the wake of several student deaths, binge-drinking has received widespread attention in the mainstream media, and articles have also been turning up in alumni publications from other institutions that come to the Gazette office.
   As at schools across the country, there has been continuing discussion at Penn about the role of alcohol on campus and the promotion of responsible drinking behavior. While Penn has been spared the loss of any current student, the apparently alcohol-related accidental death of a recent alumnus on campus in March brought a fresh sense of urgency to the problem. This issue's lead "Gazetteer" reports on the University administration's initial response announcing a series of new restrictions on drinking, the vehement student reaction and the efforts of a newly-formed task force to craft an effective long-term approach to curbing alcohol abuse.
    -- John Prendergast C'80
   

Previous month's column | May/June Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified 4/30/99