SPARC and Children First for Oregon worked on composing this op-ed in response to a column blaming the Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Welfare Programs for recent child deaths in Oregon. It was placed in the Oregonian on Saturday, June 30th, 2012 and can be found here.

Preventing Child Abuse: We Know How, But Why Don’t We?

By Robin Christian

During the past several weeks and months, local headlines have delivered us a steady stream of horror stories: child after child, burned and broken, molested and murdered. Jeanette Maples, Mahonarye Noa, a little boy known only in court documents as “R.H.” and numerous others whose names we don’t know. All Oregon children, abused — sometimes to death — by their parents and foster parents.

As one of the organizations in the state advocating for the needs of children, we read these headlines with a particular sense of sadness and outrage. Quite simply, we know how to make kids safer. Year after year, we take this message to the halls of the Capitol. Too many times, we are told that there is no room in the budget for the programs and services that strengthen families and save children’s lives.

The state Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Welfare Programs is currently operating with a staff equal to 67 percent of the workforce needed to meet minimum standards. That’s minimum standards. And as a state, we continue to accept two-thirds of the bare minimum while the newspapers bring us more stories of tortured children and their lonely deaths. We know that face-to-face contact between child welfare caseworkers and families is key to keeping kids safe, but mounting caseloads and dwindling staffing levels make this crucial face-to-face contact less and less likely. We collectively shake our fist at DHS for its failures, and then we turn around and allow our representatives to whittle away at the very program charged with protecting vulnerable children.

But when we commit funding to our child welfare agency and to the services that can bring struggling families back from the brink, those investments pay off. In 2007, the Legislature invested $10 million in alcohol and drug treatment for parents whose children were at risk of being removed from their care. The result? Fewer children entered the child welfare system to begin with. By 2010, the percentage of children removed from their homes because of drugs and alcohol had already decreased by 16 percent. This modest investment made a big difference for kids.

When tragedy strikes, it’s easy to point fingers. It’s satisfying to rage about bureaucratic incompetence. It’s sometimes politically advantageous to look for blame on the other side of the aisle. Meanwhile, Oregon’s most vulnerable kids pay the price.

Yes, Oregon faces a tight state budget. But tough times are the most important times to protect children. We know what to do to keep kids safe, yet that is not where our state makes its investments or sets its priorities. As we move into another election, it is our shared responsibility to make sure political excuses don’t cost the life of another child. And unless we’ve challenged our representatives in Salem to make ending child abuse and neglect their top priority — unless we’ve cast our ballots based on their degree of commitment to that cause — we haven’t satisfied the bare minimum, either.

Robin Christian is the executive director of Children First for Oregon.