Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Constitution: PROTECTING CHILDREN: State determined to save lives
Audrey W. Horne - Special
Thursday • December 16

I direct a state agency that is one of the institutions responsible for protecting the lives of Georgia's children. I'm also a mother. I was angry, outraged and terribly sad as I read Jane Hansen's Dec. 5 article on what she called "the forgotten children."

How did this happen? Why did these children die?

As commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, I know what puts children in danger. Drug-addicted parents. Poor judgment by overwhelmed caseworkers. Unstable, transient families. Lack of community involvement. Poverty. The list goes on.

I also know that only a small portion of child deaths is due to abuse and neglect. Although the newspaper article referred to 844 child deaths over a six-year period, the majority of these children did not die from abuse but from accidents or medical conditions. These cases include:

A baby born infected with the HIV virus and abandoned in the hospital at birth. Custody was awarded to the Department of Family and Children Services. That child later died from HIV-related complications --- never having left the hospital.

A premature newborn who died in the hospital. The mother had three previous children removed from her home due to physical abuse.

While the majority of the 844 children were not in state custody and did not die from abuse, even one child who dies from abuse is one too many. And that is one of the reasons Georgia's child protective services has made significant changes.

DFCS developed strong, research-based policies to address many of the problems pointed out in the articles. Our caseworkers now use investigative guidelines and service delivery models developed in other states that have been shown to reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect.

Do we still have problems? Of course, just as every state in the country does.

CPS is part of a system that includes judges, law enforcement, doctors, hospitals and schools. This system is unwieldy, despite the best intentions of all involved. And if one part of the system fails it can mean serious harm to a child.

The demands on caseworkers are enormous. The intensity of their jobs coupled with the alarming number of problems in the families they serve leads to burnout and turnover. Yet the vast majority work long hours and go the third and fourth mile to see that children are safe.

We are working on strengthening the whole network of agencies involved with making decisions about children's lives. Starting this month, five judicial districts will pilot child death investigation teams trained by DFCS. The teams, composed of a district attorney, law enforcement officer, medical examiner and CPS investigator will conduct joint investigations when a child dies under suspicious circumstances.

To further strengthen the system, I am taking a number of immediate actions:

Establishing an independent child protection task force to do a comprehensive review of the CPS system.

Transferring 171 DFCS staff members from their current work assignment to child protective services. Dwindling welfare numbers have given us the opportunity to redirect resources, including staff, to protect children.

Appointing a response team to conduct a review of child death records from previous and current years to see what else DFCS could have done to prevent some of those deaths.

DFCS will begin the new year with a new director, Juanita Blount-Clark, who is respected as a visionary builder and problem solver.

I wish with all my heart that I could promise that no child known to DFCS will ever die from abuse and neglect. I can't do that. But I can assure you, we take our jobs very seriously and will do everything in our power to protect children.

Audrey W. Horne is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources.

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