October 17, 2006 in City

New law targets chronic neglect

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Washington’s child welfare system was well-acquainted with the troubles plaguing the Hanley family.

Over the course of 41/2 years, the state’s Child Protective Services received a dozen referrals expressing concern about the welfare of the three children of Mathew T. and Barbara Hanley, who lived in Deer Park.

The family’s file contained numerous allegations of drug abuse, as well as concerns about physical abuse and gun safety in the home. In two instances, the agency conclusively determined the Hanleys had neglected their children.

Yet state workers felt legally powerless.

In September 2005, state attorneys said they lacked the evidence to remove the children. A team of experts recommended the children stay in the home.

Three months later, authorities say, the Hanleys’ 11-year-old son accidentally shot his younger brother in the head while they were playing with their father’s guns. Bradley M. Hanley, 6, died the following day.

For decades, social workers, state attorneys and child welfare experts have wrestled with how to handle children living in chronic neglect where more obvious signs of abuse – such as broken bones or bruises – may not be present.

But next year, a new state law will specifically allow social workers to intervene in cases that demonstrate “a pattern of neglect.” It will also allow the state to take legal actions against parents such as the Hanleys who don’t follow through with treatment plans.

“It has been a huge problem,” said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, who introduced the original bill on the topic. “Caseworkers up until now haven’t had the legal authority to protect children who are suffering serious harm because of chronic neglect. This legislation gives them the tools to save children’s lives.”

In the past 10 years, reports of neglect to the Children’s Administration have increased dramatically, topping more than 45,000 in 2004 – the last year for which the numbers are available. State caseworkers review more cases of neglect than physical abuse, sexual abuse and abandonment combined.

But even in cases with dozens of complaints about neglect, social workers have been cautious about using the state’s most definitive action: removing children from the home.

Child welfare experts say state and national systems cling to the outdated notion that chronic neglect may not be as injurious to children as physical abuse.

“The system hasn’t really changed for 30 or 40 years,” said Roy Harrington, a former state administrator now with the Child and Family Research Institute at Washington State University in Spokane. “There hasn’t been any overall focus on child neglect from any state. (The law) puts Washington as a leader in looking at this. That’s a really sad statement.”

A history of neglect

While physical abuse is relatively easy to distinguish, neglect can fall under a slew of categories, such as failure by a parent to provide enough food, clothing, shelter or medical care.

“You’ve seen cases where there are 15, maybe 20 referrals before there has been a filing,” said Steve Hassett, an assistant attorney general in Olympia who oversees dependency litigation. “You don’t have a clear-cut bruise where a medical expert may establish it or a law enforcement officer can bring in a photo. But the pattern of behavior is putting this child at extreme risk.”

Research has shown that gross neglect not only causes children to suffer emotionally and behaviorally but can actually restrict a young brain’s growth and development. Its prevalence – neglect accounts for more than two-thirds of all referrals in Washington and Idaho – has also raised the question of whether child welfare systems should act more quickly and more often.

Washington’s new threshold – which could substantially increase the number of cases accepted by the agency – will come at a cost. The Legislature has budgeted $10 million per year to handle the influx of new cases.

State social workers are struggling to manage the 9,600 children who need out-of-home placement on any given day. In the past three years, the number of licensed foster homes has gradually declined, reaching the lowest numbers since 1998.

State officials must now balance the protection of thousands of children living in neglectful homes with the risk of overwhelming an already fragile child welfare system.

“It just seems that in this state and others, there is an awful lot of tolerance for these lengthy histories – particularly if they involve neglect rather than abuse,” said Dee Wilson, executive director of the University of Washington’s Northwest Institute for Children and Families and a former state administrator. “However, what if the agency was to take some firm stance? You would have the potential of wiping out the child welfare system.”

It’s not clear how many new cases could be added to worker caseloads as a result of the law, in part because the Legislature failed to explicitly state how many referrals constitute chronic neglect.

In a fiscal note attached to the original House bill, staffers suggested that chronic neglect be defined as five referrals in three years, four referrals in two years, or three referrals in one year.

But absent that definition, which did not make it into the new law, social workers and attorneys for the state must make the decision to file a dependency petition locally, without the benefit of a statewide standard, and likely after evaluating the disposition of local courts and judges.

State leaders have not yet crafted a policy on chronic neglect but have started a massive training program for social workers on the new law, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, deputy regional administrator for the Department of Children and Family Services in Spokane.

“It’s going to teach us about this population that has really exhausted a lot of our resources,” Lambert-Eckel said. “The focus has shifted, I think very appropriately, to the development of a model of approach. How do we support neglected families?”

The failure to act in cases of chronic neglect has resulted in several high-profile tragedies.

In November 2004, police found two baby boys dead and their mother passed out in a Kent, Wash., apartment littered with hundreds of beer cans. Marie Robinson had been reported to state social workers 10 times, including six complaints in the two years before the deaths of Justice and Raiden Robinson.

The new legislation notes that evidence of a parent’s substance abuse should be given “a great weight.”

The Hanley case

At the time of his death, Bradley Hanley lived with his father “due to his mother’s methamphetamine use,” according to an Internal Child Fatality Review by the Children’s Administration.

The report lists 12 referrals about the Hanleys that raised a host of concerns. Time and again, the parents simply avoided social workers and refused recommended treatment programs until the investigations were closed, according to the report.

On at least two occasions, law enforcement placed the children in protective custody only to have them returned to the home.

When police officers responded to the family’s home in March 2004, they found Barbara Hanley unable to account for the whereabouts of her children. Inside the “dirty, disorderly” home, officers noted a puddle of urine on the floor, according to the documents.

Six months later, one of the boys told a school counselor that his mother “sniffs broken light bulbs, has pot in her purse, and has cocaine at her boyfriend’s house.”

For the next three months, neither parent responded to agency social workers. With no way to contact the parents, the agency said, it marked the referral as “inconclusive” and closed the investigation.

Had the new law been in place, state workers would have had the authority to remove the children based on the Hanleys’ failure to follow through on treatment.

In September 2005, a Child Protective Team – typically composed of experts both within and outside the agency – recommended the children be kept in the Hanley home. The Attorney General’s office warned there “was not sufficient information” to pursue legal action to remove the children from the home, according to notes from the meeting.

The shooting occurred three months later.

Spokane County detectives determined that Mathew Hanley left his sons alone in the house while he was at work and left a set of keys to the gun safe.

Neither Mathew Hanley nor his wife could be reached by The Spokesman-Review.

Detectives believe the boys were playing with the guns when a .22-caliber rifle went off. Bradley Hanley was shot in the head. His older brother called 911, attempted CPR on Bradley and put the firearms back in the gun safe before deputies arrived. Bradley died on Dec. 7.

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to press charges.

CPS removed the surviving Hanley children from the home after the shooting. Today, they remain in state care.

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