Over the last decade, between 22 and 36 children in New York City each year died after child welfare authorities had looked into some allegation of unsatisfactory conditions in their homes, says the New York Times. Most of those deaths go largely unnoticed, but occasionally, a horrific example of unchecked abuse leading to death comes to define the child welfare system for much of the public. Last week’s death of Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old girl beaten to death, the authorities say, by her stepfather, has set off a storm of news media coverage, investigations and angry finger-pointing. Today, the child welfare agency is expected to announce disciplinary actions against workers involved in her case.
Nixzmary’s case is roiling an agency that most agree has made enormous strides since a significant overhaul began in early 1996. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute said that the number of child fatalities in any given year is an important measure of performance, but only one among many. Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said that the number of fatalities is so small and fluctuates so much that it is of limited use. “You can learn useful things from studying homicides, but one thing you cannot know is whether your system is getting any better or any worse,” said Wexler, who thinks child welfare agencies too often needlessly remove children from homes. In New York, some of the lowest totals of deaths came when the city’s child welfare system was thought to be at its worst, in the mid-1990s. One of the highest totals – 36 in 1998 – occurred two years into a reform effort that would be hailed as a national model.