Here we go again. So far, the media has turned up family and friends who claim to have filed at least six reports of child abuse with the Department of Social Services in Gaston County before 2-year-old Addison Lanham's horrific death.
Once again, DSS officials who could be complicit in a child's death get to hide behind state privacy laws with the help of state politicians.
Lanham died after her broken leg and blood infection went untreated. Her mother Shanna Lanham and her boyfriend have been arrested on child abuse and involuntary manslaughter charges. I can't imagine what that child suffered.
Social Services officials are now assuring us that DSS did a simply fabulous job following up and protecting Lanham and that we would agree if they could release her case file. But since they can't, we'll just have to take their word for it. Again.
Ten-year-old Zahra Baker's body was found dismembered despite at least five reports to two DSS agencies that she was being abused in the nine months before her death. In that case, DSS officials also claimed they did a bang-up job, despite the obviously horrendous results. If they could just show us the case files, we'd agree, they said.
Then they released a sanitized summary of their involvement, case closed. And not a peep from the politicians in Raleigh. Given that the Baker case was featured daily on national TV, you'd think that state legislators or the governor would demand an independent investigation by investigators from outside the state to see whether correct procedures were followed in these cases. The whole system needs a top-to-bottom inspection to see if changes are needed.
Then they must publish the results. A child fatality review team already automatically reviews these cases in North Carolina every time a child dies of abuse, but that's a joke. The problem is that the way the state legislature set that up, the team always mostly consists of members from the same county agencies that failed the child. They don't even bring in folks from a different county.
And no one is held responsible. Yes, you read that right.
"Such reviews are conducted to make beneficial changes, not penalize anyone for mistakes," Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lori Walston told the Gaston Gazette. "It's more of a lessons learned situation," she said.
They don't penalize anyone for their mistakes? What is this? Little League T-Ball?
When a 10-year-old ends up dismembered with her story on national TV before a horrified nation, there needs to be widespread consequences if mistakes were made — not hand-holding and group affirmation.
It's shocking that no true outside investigation has ever been launched, much less proposed in the Baker case. The same will happen with the Lanham case. DSS will close the books on it with assurances that everything went great, which will be good enough for the politicians in Raleigh.
My fear is that DSS investigations are being run as poorly as the state's parole and probation system was. After the Raleigh News & Observer ran a series about how more than 500 people had been murdered by convicts on parole or probation, the governor was finally forced to do an independent investigation. It found that in 80 percent of 1,400 probation cases examined, operational rules weren't followed. What if the state's child abuse investigations are handled that poorly?
There is no way to know until Raleigh demands answers. The only question is how many children will die before that happens.
There just seems to be a pattern here. DSS is called out multiple times, finds nothing, and quickly closes the complaint. Later, after a child dies of abuse, reporters who drop in on the lives of family and neighbors somehow have no problem quickly finding people to discuss the signs of child abuse they all witnessed.
In the Baker case, WBTV rolled up to Baker's old neighborhood and found neighbors willing to talk about the abuse of Baker, which was well known in the neighborhood. What is the DSS excuse in these cases?
Perhaps there was nothing child abuse investigators could do to save Baker and Lanham. The problem is that we simply don't know, and that is unacceptable.