One of the problems with how politicians respond to child abuse and neglect is the tendency to react to every alarming incident with calls for the resignation of the child welfare agency head or for reorganization of the agency itself. And one of the problems with how journalists cover child abuse and neglect policy is that such proposals are typically just reported honestly but uncritically.

Criticism isn’t appropriate for a news story – they’re intended to report the facts, and just the facts. But editorials are different – they’re intended to challenge the facts as presented by politicians, advocates, and other sources. And they’re exactly the right place for critical assessments.

That’s why Saturday’s editorial in The State (Columbia, South Carolina) was so encouraging. There’s so much to like here, including excellent writing and an honest passion for both children’s well-being and good government. But here are a few highlights that make this a model child abuse and neglect editorial:

  1. Defines the Limits of Symbolism – At its most sincere, a reorganization proposal like the one on the table in South Carolina’s legislature, is intended as a powerful symbol that child abuse and neglect is a priority within the state’s government. But, as The State observes, “symbolism doesn’t protect children from abuse; commitment does. Commitment and resources and the right laws.”
  1. Expands the Circle of Accountability – Oftentimes (though I’m in no position to know if this is the case in South Carolina), reorganization proposals serve to perpetuate the dangerous myth that child abuse and neglect problems reflect only the failings of the state’s child welfare agency. But The State reminds us that, like any other issue, the legislature and the governor must take responsibility for failings and must contribute to real solutions. And advocates can take a lead from the editorial’s frank language on that point – “If the governor is disengaged from child welfare, as Gov. Nikki Haley seemed until recently to be, then having a separate agency to deal with it won’t make her more engaged.”
  1. Resists Silver-Bullet Snakeoil – Politicians, like other humans, will naturally gravitate toward the simplest solution to a problem. But child abuse and neglect, like other problems in our society, is rarely simple. The State challenges readers to reject a simplistic silver-bullet salespitch, noting that an effective response must address structure, policy, and staffing issues, and observing that “all of those seem much more clearly to blame than the fact that we’ve asked one agency to both protect children from their parents and also help those parents feed the children and put a roof over their heads.”

Child abuse and neglect is a serious problem, and making progress requires serious commitment from all of us – policymakers, advocates, journalists, and citizens. The State’s editorial offers a great example of how good journalism can contribute to real progress on this important issue.