Photo by Michael Ahearn

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 By Samuel HughesBook 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 brick walls.

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