Protecting young innocents

“… And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

And He said, ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

Exodus, Ch. 4

Are Georgians each other’s keeper? We believe the answer should be “Yes” when it concerns our children – the innocents too young to either fend for themselves — or defend themselves against abuse and harm.

This is a question worthy of being called because Georgia’s children continue to die avoidable deaths by the score. Meanwhile, those charged with preventing horrific injury to young bodies and minds seem unable – decade after decade – to adequately stem the bleeding away of youthful innocence and lives.

This terrible situation, shrouded in a veil of secrecy and bureaucratic failings, should shock all Georgians of goodwill. As a state, we should cry “enough” and begin moving at once to strengthen our tattered child welfare system .

This quest should be well underway before another innocent child faces their Maker as a result of both an individual’s abuse and our collective indifference and inaction.

And any cries of “we can do no better” should be shouted down. Georgia makes headway where and when we’ve wanted to.

Consider that nowhere does Georgia strive harder than in its widely trumpeted, unceasing efforts to become the best spot in the nation, if not our world, to do business. Every politician and agency bureaucrat has set their hands to that oar, leaned into the onrushing current and attempted to heave the state toward greater prosperity.

And if a harvest’s yield is however roughly commensurate with the labor expended on it, what does that say about Georgia’s abysmal record in keeping safe our imperiled children? The honest answer should shock us all.

By even the most minimal of measures, we have come up utterly short at this foundational task of civilized society and governance. As a result, young lives – and the potential those children might have offered to society — have been lost by the hundreds. Worse yet, the toll of preventable harm continues to grow.

What does that say about us as a state? And as a people often quick to proclaim our civility, piety and righteousness?

There is blame enough to tuck into many places. Yet all Georgians would do well, in our view, to each absorb the sad tally of suffering and lost lives. Next, we should determine how we can shoulder a share of the responsibility and push for solutions. There is a role to play for government, as well as every house of worship, civic and charitable group and functional adult in this state. Our common humanity demands we do better.

For it is clear that, however well-meaning their intentions, Georgia’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) has done too little, too often — and children suffered or died as a result. These institutional failings must be fixed, starting now. We’ll note here that DFCS declined an invitation to write about their successes and shortcomings on this page.

If it’s a question of resources, Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly should move decisively in 2014 to address any suboptimal allocation of still-scarce funds. Crying poor cannot be an excuse for letting stand a dangerously broken status quo whose shortcomings allow far too much abuse, neglect and death to escape detection and prevention.

Money may or may not be the answer. We won’t know until Georgia asks the questions. That seems a task well-fitted to a blue-ribbon commission of the type that state politicians have frequently called into being to address this or that issue.

Consider that state officials moved relatively quickly recently to begin fixing longstanding problems in Georgia’s adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. What resulted were substantial changes that should result in a safer Georgia.

Georgia’s troubled children deserve that type of concerted effort.

One simple — and cheap — fix would come in demolishing the countereffective wall of secrecy surrounding child welfare cases. How much time and money are wasted – and abuse and criminal intent left undiscovered – by the current cloak surrounding DFCS cases?

As Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Alan Judd explained in an Oct. 20 report, the unjustified primacy of secrecy means, “Neither social workers nor police officers, neither medical examiners nor inquisitive neighbors can easily see all the threats to a child’s safety.” Children suffer and die as a result.

That’s unacceptable. Georgia should design and enact a more-transparent, effective system of child welfare safeguards that ferrets out risks – and addresses them – in a way that also provides reasonable privacy for the at-risk and the innocent.

To say that cannot be done in this age of instant, cheap communications seems a protestation more befitting of an isolated 19th-century backwater than the 21st-century shining star that we profess to be

Those whose job it is to sell Georgia’s virtues to all who will hear them proclaim that we are the modern-day embodiment of that city on a hill spoken of in the biblical Sermon on the Mount. The place too prominent to ever be hidden, as that message goes. Politicians have riffed off that imagery since Colonial times.

We can never truly live up to that ideal without first cementing into an effective whole what are now Georgia’s scattered shards of a child welfare system. The spilled blood of too many innocents compels us to quickly do just that.