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Child-welfare reform requires courage

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By Marylou Sudders

“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.”

The words of Dalai Lama echo as we reflect on the state of child abuse prevention efforts in today’s social, economic, and political climates.

The child welfare system, if such a system ever truly existed, is without question broken.

Child welfare includes public mental health services, the stepchild of the health care system.

Throughout the U.S., there are many highly-trained and skilled professionals who deliver critical and effective services to children every day.

But, this fact does not alter the reality that the condition of our current system of care is rendered perilously ineffective.

The failures of the system are indisputable.

Egregious results have been chronicled in the stories of children who have been murdered or abused by their parents, sexually abused by coaches, spiritual leaders or other trusted adults, and babies left dead or brain injured by caretakers who violently shook them.

Less known are the plights of thousands of other children whose already challenging lives were made even more difficult by a system riddled with service gaps, ineffective communication channels, and antiquated rules for securing and offering assistance.

The statistics are staggering.

According to the Child Welfare League of America, in 2003 there were 906,000 substantiated reports of abuse and neglect, 1,117 child fatalities that resulted from abuse, and 523,085 children placed out of home.

There has been extensive exploration of the reasons for the system’s failure.

In Massachusetts alone, six high-level government investigative bodies have met to examine the effectiveness of the system since 1988.

Nationally, countless independent reports have been issued outlining necessary reforms.

Due to the lack of one key ingredient, those efforts have resulted in little more than intellectual hand-wringing.

Few recommendations have been given, and sweeping reform is still largely viewed as the radical demand of the fringe few who are either extremely angry or hopelessly unrealistic.

That key ingredient for reform is courage – the courage to move beyond “I’ll do what I can” to “I’ll do what it takes.”

Courage is critical to withstand ideological pressure and do what is necessary to secure the resources needed to sustain the current system while a new system is put in place.

It is not enough to be compassionate. We must fully commit to act to protect our kids.

For 128 years, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has been dedicated to leadership in promoting and protecting the rights and well-being of children.

Join us on the front lines today and every day.


Marylou Sudders is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

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