It’s OK to Kill the Kids

Shortly after midnight a few days ago, Casey Anthony walked out of jail following a two month trial that ended in acquittal on all serious charges. She spent just over three years in custody awaiting trial, time applied to her sentence for the crime of lying to police in the investigation of a felony.

While this may be the verdict demanded by our legal system which holds that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, it may also be a case of jury confusion between beyond a reasonable doubt and beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don’t know which is true, and to be honest that’s not my concern.

What I do know is this: A child’s life has ended at the hands of the very adult whose job was to protect her, and no one — NO ONE — will be held accountable. And it hits me where I live; in an America that gives lip service to caring for the well-being of children, but too often fails miserably when it comes to walking the walk.

I’m faced with the ugly evidence of this failure day after day in my work with infants and toddlers ensnared in the child welfare system, and it’s high time we stop pretending and take it on.

Real Case: Diamond* is an 18-month-old little girl who came into foster care after a hospital stay which began when she was brought to the emergency room at 9 months with multiple broken bones — 63 individual fractures, to be exact. There was plenty of finger pointing throughout her extended family, from Mom’s boyfriend to a grandfather to a cousin who was babysitting, and ’round and ’round.

Because a 9-month-old can’t tell who hurt her, and because the civil rights of adults always trump the rights of children, no one was charged with Diamond’s assault. In an ironic twist, Diamond’s mother and biological father were granted weekly visits with her. During the visits, Diamond screamed non-stop and refused to eat for several days afterwards. This baby refused to eat after visiting with her birth parents. Picture that. Eventually she had to be hospitalized and tube-fed before the Juvenile Court would reconsider the wisdom of these visits.

Now, at 18 months, a hearing looms to determine whether the court will terminate the rights of the birth parents and free Diamond for adoption. It’s far from a slam-dunk.

Real Case: Jesse* is a 3-year-old who is wise beyond his years. While in the protective care of a county foster home with his three siblings, all under the age of 5, he was seriously injured when he fell off a wall outdoors and hit his head. As a result, he has permanent damage to the nerves in his face and will likely need surgery to prevent worsening vision problems.

Turns out the foster home was under investigation for welfare fraud at the time of Jesse’s injury. Apparently this doesn’t disqualify you from caring for children who’ve already been traumatized and removed from their family.

Within days of being moved to a new foster home, Jesse would be re-hospitalized with a life-threatening infection (origin unknown). Juvenile Court has now decided to reunify Jesse and his siblings with their birth parents. After all, “the system” hasn’t done a very good job of keeping them safe.

Real Case: Charlie* was born to a mother who was using cocaine right up to the time she arrived at the hospital in labor. He was also born with a very serious heart defect — one that would require multiple surgeries, intensive medical care and parental vigilance. Due to his mother’s drug addiction, Charlie was placed with well-trained and loving foster parents who are leaps and bounds above the norm.

Several months, two open heart surgeries, and countless doctor’s appointments later, Charlie was medically stable and doing well. The Court decided to return him to the care of his birth father, an on-again, off-again heroin user with his own childhood history filled with neglect and abuse. His foster parents were frightened and sad, but powerless to do anything but grieve.

Fast forward six weeks. Charlie’s now-former foster mom is surfing Craig’s List looking for nearly new kid equipment for her other child, when she comes across an ad requesting donations for a baby with serious heart problems, now being cared for by random relatives with zero resources. Her gut tells her it’s Charlie, whose whereabouts have been lost by the child welfare system. She calls his doctors who report missed appointments and unfilled prescriptions.

After what seems like forever spent wrangling with social workers and the Courts, Charlie is found and will soon be adopted by his foster family. Happy ending. But what would have happened if not for that improbable Craig’s List coincidence?

These children, along with little Caylee Anthony, are just a few examples of how dreadfully we fail children. There are thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — more just like them. And that makes it feel overwhelming, doesn’t it? They say that one death is a tragedy, while 100 deaths is a statistic. This is magnified when you’re talking about kids. Who can wrap their mind around the fact that x (choose a number) children just like yours and mine are being harmed right now as you read this by adults whose job is to nurture them and keep them safe? Not I.

But we have to, you see. We can’t look the other way and say, “how awful” or “what a shame” and then go on with our day. The mobs demanding justice for Caylee are already losing interest now that the TV cameras have moved on.

There will always be another Caylee, and another Diamond and Jesse and Charlie. Until we get serious about taking care of our community’s children and send a crystal clear message: It’s NOT OK to kill the kids.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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