No one can know for sure whether a parent or caretaker will act in ways that may turn deadly for a child, says Michael Weiner, Erie County social services commissioner.
Adults who cause a child's death often give no indication that they are different from people "who never cause their children any substantial harm," he testified Thursday before two Assembly committees investigating child abuse and neglect.
For abusers, "overwhelming influences" such as stress and anxiety may conspire to cause "tragic abuse, neglect and even the death of a child," Weiner said at a joint hearing of the Children and Families and the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation committees in the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library.
On the other hand, "protective factors" seem to be present in the social structure of families that do not harm their children, Weiner said. They include "caring, supportive family members, friends and neighbors and a well-developed network of services within the community," buttressed by access to financial support and education, he said.
Those factors "come into play at times when forces in the parent or caretaker's life become overwhelming and challenge them beyond their ability to cope," he said. The Assembly committees are studying the state's child welfare system, following the deaths of five New York City children at the hands of parents. News reports suggested that in each instance, child protection authorities may have known the young victims were at risk.
"Our goal," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee, "must be to produce sound policy recommendations that correct problems impeding child protection."
But suspicions of child abuse or neglect in recent Erie County fatalities -- there were eight in 2002, nine in 2003, 11 in 2004 and 10 in 2005 -- were not always supported by the facts, which pointed to "a variety of causes," said Weiner. He was among a dozen witnesses who lined up to address the panel, headed by Hoyt and William Scarborough, D-St. Albans, chairman of the Children and Families Committee. In cases where abuse or neglect were factors, "a substantial proportion of the families had been previously reported to the state Central Registry," the commissioner said.
He recommended several steps to enhance the "protective factors" that keep most children from falling victim to abuse and neglect.
Increase child welfare staffing levels to meet established caseload standards.
Permit child protection agencies to access criminal records of parents and caregivers.
Increase penalties for parents or guardians who kill a child, or rape or sodomize a close relative.
Supplement programs like Connections, the statewide case reporting system, to make local implementation easier.
Establish cross-training among law enforcement agencies and other first-response child protection groups.
Upgrade the credentials and minimum civil service of welfare workers who provide front-line services to high-risk children and their families.