Photo by Michael Ahearn. Pictured (from left): Wanda Mohr, Annie
Steinberg, Barbara Woodhouse and Richard Gelles.
For Dr. Richard Gelles,
the turning point came in late 1990 when he was working on the fatality
review of a 15-month-old toddler whom he came to call David. The case
was ghastly enough on its own -- a heart-ripping litany of bruises, chipped
bones and the final act of suffocation by the boy's mother -- but what
prompted Gelles to write The Book
of David about it was the fact that the death was so avoidable. The
parents' proclivity for violence was well known to child-welfare authorities;
yet even though his older sister had been so badly beaten that she had
been placed in foster care before David was born, and though an anonymous
caller had told the agency that David was "failing," he was
allowed to remain with his parents until the awful, preventable end.
Gelles, the Joanne T. and Raymond B. Welsh Chair of
Child Welfare and Family Violence at Penn, was then a professor of social
work at the University of Rhode Island. For years he had, in an academic
way, preached the gospel of what he now calls the Oppression School: that
parents who abuse their children should be treated as victims of oppression
rather than as offenders; that it was invariably better to spend the money
on rehabilitating them than on getting the child out of their house --
that the whole problem of child abuse was a matter of social factors that
could be cured by caring interventions.
But even before the death of David, Gelles was finding
himself increasingly unable to get his own data to conform to that theory.
And as he listened to one of David's case workers -- a former student
-- try to explain why she had handled the case as she did, he realized
that she had merely done what everyone in the field, including himself,
had taught her to do. That was when it hit him.
"I just sort of gasped and said, 'Gee, I can't
criticize her for what she's doing -- I taught her to do it,'" he
says now, sitting in his windowless office in the Caster Building, home
of the School of Social Work. "'It's a perversion of my own work
that's ended up with this little boy dead.' And all of us who mouthed
the mantra, 'You just need more resources, you just need more workers,
you just need more money,' were responsible for him being suffocated."
It was a "terrible feeling," he
says convincingly. "It's the old Pogo thing: 'We have met the enemy
and he is us.'"
Not every case involving the child-welfare
system is as brutally dramatic as David's. And not every member of the
Children's Group -- a high-powered group of children's advocates at Penn
-- would paint the issue in quite such stark tones as Gelles. But they
all agree passionately about the need to overhaul a system that is falling
down on the job.
"The very agencies that are charged
with protecting these most innocent and vulnerable members of our society
are subjecting them to experiences that kill and maim some and leave many
with a lifetime of problems," notes the proposal for a Penn-based
Center for Child Protection, which would draw on the multi-disciplinary
expertise of the Children's Group. "There is an emerging consensus
that a new model of child protection and the management of abuse and neglect
cases is needed."
Eight years ago, the National Commission on Children
reported: "If the nation had deliberately designed a system that
would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance
it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done
a better job than the present child-welfare system ... Marginal changes
will not turn this system around." Yet despite the commission's call
for "comprehensive reform based on fundamental restructuring of our
efforts to help troubled children and protect vulnerable children,"
Gelles and many of his colleagues believe that most of the changes thus
far have been cosmetic. And so children continue to languish in foster-care
limbo, live with abusive parents -- and die.
"What I'm saying now is, 'Let's quit
kidding ourselves that rounding up the usual suspects in an attempt to
solve the problem of the child-welfare system is really going to work,'"
says Gelles. "Any journalist worth their paycheck knows what happens:
Child dies, hearings are held, calls for more case-workers, for more funding
-- and for the head of the agency to be replaced. It's not unlike the
George Steinbrenner approach to the New York Yankees -- when in doubt,
spend more money, get more players, fire the manager. Guess what? That
doesn't work in child welfare.
"Nothing short of a rebuilding of the child-welfare
system is going to be satisfactory," he concludes, his brown eyes
focusing on his interviewer with laser-like intensity. Behind him, the
screen-saver on his computer flashes a disorienting maze of ever-shifting
May/June Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 4/29/99