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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/ 6/2009

Family or Foster Care? A Death Shows the Stakes

By editors

Matthew Joseph
Silver Spring

The death of 3-year-old DeSean Tyrese Wade in Waldorf on Aug. 19, which has resulted in a charge of child abuse, has troubling implications for child welfare case practices in Charles and Prince George’s counties.

My organization, Advocates for Children and Youth, has strongly supported allowing more maltreated children in Maryland to remain at home instead of being placed in foster care — provided their families receive services and support for an extended period. But when we examined this issue late last year, we found that families were not receiving the necessary services or supervision from caseworkers.

Circumstances suggest this may have been the case with DeSean. Certainly, there are unresolved questions about what happened after his father reported possible abuse to the Charles County Sheriff’s Office in May. A “safety plan” was prepared, and the family apparently agreed to keep the child away from the home where the abuse took place. But which family members agreed? Which home? Why does the father now say it was a suggestion and not an agreement that the child stay away from this home? Did monitoring occur? Did the case remain open? Were any additional services provided to the family?

Citing confidentiality provisions, the Maryland Department of Human Resources has not addressed these questions. What we do know, though, is that three months after his father’s report, DeSean was dead. DeSean’s mother’s boyfriend, Myron Antonio Gibson, has been charged with first-degree child abuse in the case. Police say Gibson told them DeSean fell and hit his head while they were wrestling.

Both Advocates for Children and Youth and the Department of Human Resources say they support “family-centered case practice,” which is designed to reduce the number of children like DeSean who are removed from their homes, but we have very different views about how to implement this. We say it requires intensive retraining of caseworkers, an expansion of in-home services and ongoing caseworker support for families. We point to national experts and the experience of other states. In contrast, the department holds one-time “family involvement meetings,” provides almost no training for caseworkers and then closes cases. In-home services are being cut, not expanded.

Had a caseworker truly engaged the family and helped the family form a family team — as happens in other states — DeSean could have been much better protected. Such a team — of family, friends, relatives, community members, service providers, the caseworker, clergy, etc. — could have monitored whether DeSean was going to the home where the alleged abuse took place. Such a team might have seen the situation spiraling out of control in early August. The team could have told the caseworker about this.

The problem with poor implementation of family-9centered case practices is that it increases risk to children and provides ammunition to people who believe that every at-risk child should be in foster care. DeSean’s death should be a wake-up call to Maryland child welfare officials that if they’re going to work to keep more children in their homes — and they should — they need to do a much better job helping families keep these children safe.

The writer is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

By editors  | September 6, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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