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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Seth Ireland Death Sees an Important Jury Decision

Seth Ireland, seen in the photo below, died at the hands of his mother's boyfriend LeBaron Vaughn. Child protective services in Fresno California had received numerous calls about this child. They investigated but they could not find anything wrong according to news reports.

However, the father of Seth, Joseph Hudson, brought a civil liability action against CPS. Yesterday, the  jury awarded him $5 million dollars and Seth's step brother $3.5 million (US dollars). The jury appears to have found that CPS did not follow more than a dozen protocols and had also failed to investigate in a timely fashion.

There are many implications for child protection arising from a decision like this. Front line workers need to be aware that the quality of their work can be subject to intense external scrutiny with liability implications. Many have thought that CPS was immune to lawsuits for their work, but this may be changing.

That workers could be subject to intense public scrutiny is not news - consider the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry presently underway in Manitoba; the recent review of St. Andrew's Hostel Katanning in Australia as well as the Baby Peter case in England.

But front line social workers are the ones who may bear the brunt of public scrutiny, it is the funders of child protection services who should have the heaviest magnification on their decisions. They want increased effectiveness for decreasing dollars. You cannot expect that front line workers can be consistently meeting paperwork, face to face time with clients, investigation time lines and good case management if resources and funding are limited. As budgets continue to tighten in jurisdictions around the world, it will be harder and harder for front line to meet expectations.

This discussion cannot be complete without thinking about the highly complex reality of child protection investigations. People are able to successfully hide what they are doing for many reasons, such as:

  • they can effectively lie;
  • children can be too afraid to tell the truth;
  • parents move making it hard to follow them;
  • these families can be isolated making it hard for eyes in the community to see what is happening;
  • families counter suspicion with plausible explanations;
Workers, often faced with huh caseloads will make miss cases for these and other reasons. No child protection system can eliminate child deaths. However, what the Seth Ireland case does do, is say that accountability will still exist and doing it right may matter when public scrutiny is brought to bear. Each time a child dies when CPS is involved, public scrutiny can be increasingly expected.

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