Recently my brother’s father-in-law wrote an op/ed for one of his local newspapers in the Tampa Bay area that urged the passage of law that is designed to protect children from the horrors of brain trauma, something he happens to be an expert in. Part of the issue is that many young children (and I was among them as a child) live in poorly ventilated trailers that heat up to a dangerous level and that can be threatening to the life and health of children. As a matter of course these trailers do not meet the building code and certainly are not constructed with an eye towards the luxury of providing sufficient ventilation for vulnerable and impoverished children. Part of the issue is also the way that Florida’s system involves an either-or model of involvement by DHS in the lives of parents. Either children are in the system on the track towards adoption and removal from their birth families or the birth families are viewed as doing a good enough job to be reunified with their children without any further involvement by the state, and in such cases there are plenty of parents who may do well enough to show progress but not a good enough job to protect their children from the effects of drug use and unsafe partners in dysfunctional and broken families.
It is an easy thing to pass laws to deal with such situations on an ad hoc basis. When a child dies from brain trauma from a blunt force wound inflicted by a father, it is easy to throw the book at the father and to point out that such violence directed at children is unacceptable. When children die because they are being cooked in hot trailers that have internal temperatures far too high for the health of children whose brains are still somewhat fragile, it is an easy thing to demand better building codes that would allow for the protection of children whose families are poor enough that they must live in whatever housing is available, even if it is far from ideal. It is likewise an easy thing to pass laws that demand the protection of children from the harm that follows when parents are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and have the alarming but predictable tendency to have unsafe and unsavory partners. But there are two overriding problems that are equally predictable to deal with when it comes to the gap between the world we wish to create and the world we find ourselves in, and that boils down to the problem of funding and enforcement.
There is no amount of funding that will entirely provide for the safety of children when that safety depends on a government bureaucracy. One cannot hire enough police to protect children from violence in schools, in neighborhoods, and in their homes. One cannot hire enough DHS caseworkers, even if they may be found and have the appropriate background and passion for helping families, that could handle all of the cases of families where discipline is abusive, where single mothers date people who are a threat to their children, and where families suffer the ill effects of drug abuse and food insecurity and other causes and effects of poverty and deprivation. We live in a world where, whether we like it or not, there is limited political will towards providing a high amount of funding for bloated government bureaucracies that have not done a good job with the resources they already have. Some of these bureaucracies, like the FDA or USDA, are tasked with providing food safety, and others, like DHS, are tasked with providing the safety of children, especially when it comes to violence in the home. Given this political reality that must be faced, it is a real danger that laws can be passed that seek to protect children but that merely result in unfunded mandates that reflect ideals that are hopelessly unable to be put into practice.
In addition to this funding problem, we face the problem of enforcement. If we require that all housing, including trailers, meet certain ventilation requirements to provide for the well-being of children so that their developing brains and bodies can be protected from the ravages of extreme heat, who is going to enforce these laws on existing and future housing stock? Are there enough trained building inspectors and law-abiding companies for this to benefit existing children? How does one deal with the retrofitting of existing trailers which are now viewed as unsafe for children? Surely the families that use such housing do so because they cannot afford better housing. How are laws involving supervised care and the monitoring of families to protect children from abuse to be enforced? Even existing laws and protections require a great deal of volunteer effort from others. Teachers and health care professionals are already mandatory reporters (as are Sabbath school teachers and other religious officials, volleyball coaches, and CASAs/guardians ad litem). Often the best way to protect children is simply to be observant and concerned about that which is going on around you, as well as willing to report those observations to those who care about them. If we are to improve the protection of vulnerable children, such volunteerism on the part of those involved with and observant of children will have to increase. It takes a village to raise a child and all that, as Hillary Clinton once wrote.
What is to be done? The greatest barrier to the well-being of children is ourselves. If we are too busy to volunteer as court-appointed advocates for children, if we are not observant about the lives of our children and those around us, if we are too busy with our own cares and concerns and addictions to do what is right by the little ones around us, and if we are unwilling to pay the price that must be paid if children are to live in safer conditions, then we share in the blame when inevitably some poor child is found to have been killed or abused in situations where the danger was obvious. It is an easy thing to pass laws that demonstrate our wish that children might be safe from abuse and neglect and harm. It is a hard thing to show the will that might bring these wishes into reality. Who is to pay the cost? Who is to bear the burden? The voices that call out for children to be given the opportunity to live better lives free of being abused by parents and their partners, or free to suffer from the effects of bad housing are many and vociferous. The voices of those willing to open their wallets and their schedules to address these needs are far fewer and far more hesitant. What is to be done about that?