False Choices

Thursday, February 28, 2008

CHILD WELFARE officials in the District are under scrutiny again for bungling a case of suspected child abuse. This time, it's twin baby girls taken from parents who were wrongly accused, and the issue is whether an overzealous agency overreacted. That's in contrast to how the four daughters of Banita Jacks were overlooked and tragically died. Common to both cases, though, is an appalling lack of judgment that resulted in great harm to families the city aims to protect.

Greg and Julianna Caplan's nightmarish treatment by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), as revealed by Post columnist Marc Fisher, started when one of their 8-month-old twins was taken to Children's Hospital after acting strangely following a bump on her head last August. Because the baby suffered retinal hemorrhaging, sometimes a tip-off to shaken baby syndrome, the CFSA was summoned. The agency was right to suspect abuse and to investigate, particularly because of the hospital's concerns. But it rushed to judgment and conducted, at best, an indifferent investigation. The other twin was removed from the parents' custody with no real investigation and on the basis of incomplete medical information.

Subsequent tests showed that a preexisting condition probably caused the hemorrhages. That didn't stop the District from placing both girls in foster care. Even more astounding was the city's persistence in pressing an abuse case, even after a judge found no "reasonable grounds" to suspect abuse and in the absence of any definitive medical finding of abuse. The case was eventually dismissed, but the Caplans, who amassed tens of thousands of dollars in debt, are still on the child-abuse registry, pending an appeal next month.

The agency's defense is essentially that it was just doing its job, that it must err on the side of the child. In other words, the trade-off for trying to prevent tragedies such as the Jacks case is to accept mistakes such as that involving the Caplans. Greg Caplan rightly called that "a false choice." Certainly it's not too much to expect the CFSA to undertake competent investigations. Any review of these two cases reveals an alarming inattention to best practices.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Caplans' situation centers on their much-publicized status; they are white and live in Georgetown. They pulled out all the stops in hiring lawyers, getting medical opinions and garnering media attention. That clearly rankled some in the agency. Imagine, though, what would have happened had they been less fortunate. Because the majority of people served by the CFSA lack the Caplans' clout, it's vital that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty keep his word, made after the debacle of the Jacks case, to truly reform this troubled system. That includes examining laws that don't make sense -- such as the one that requires the listing of inconclusive cases on the abuse register. Mr. Fenty, uncharacteristically timid in his reaction to the Caplan case, also must determine whether he has the right leadership in place to protect children.

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