“Fifteen-year-old Jeanette Maples died despite warnings that she was being abused. A state investigation is looking at whether state welfare workers are less likely to investigate reports of abuse of older children.”
State and private social service leaders say they see no evidence in the Portland area that child welfare workers are reluctant to act on abuse reports about older children.
Still, Department of Human Services officials want to know more about how their workers weigh age in deciding how to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. They suspect age might be part of the reason child welfare workers failed to respond to calls over a four-year period reporting the abuse of Jeanette Maples, a 15-year-old girl who died Dec. 9 in her Eugene home. Her parents have been charged with murder in her death.
In the 1990s, state child welfare workers responded less to reports of abused older children because of a system that categorized older children as less vulnerable. The rationale, in part, was that older children could flee abusive homes.
Youth advocates challenged the practice, arguing that older children don’t have legal or practical alternatives to living in abusive homes. State officials say child welfare workers have stopped using age as a measure of vulnerability.
“They have tried to get over that (age) mentality,” said Kevin Donegan, director of homeless youth services for Janus Youth Programs Inc. in Portland. “Unfortunately, there is still some of that mindset in the state.”
To determine if Donegan is right, state investigators will audit a sample of cases that abuse screeners closed to see whether age “inappropriately influenced the decision.” That review is scheduled to be complete by March 1.
Investigators say they want to determine whether the flawed screenings in Maples’ case were due to individual misjudgments or to a systemic problem of screeners “over-relying upon a child’s age as part of their evaluation of child vulnerability.”
State guidelines say social workers should consider a child’s vulnerability, but not age, when they are screening calls, said Stacey Ayers, program manager for child protective services.
“If the caller says a 16-year-old got punched in the face by his dad or a 4-year-old got punched in the face by dad, we’re assigning both of those,” he said. “The responses will be immediate.”
Mark McKechnie, executive director of the Juvenile Rights Project Inc., agrees that Portland-area social workers have responded better to abuse reports on older youth in recent years. But he said he still worries that state guidelines for screening abuse reports established two years ago could lead some workers to conclude that older children are not vulnerable.
The model says a child’s vulnerability should be judged “according to the child’s physical and emotional development, ability to communicate needs, mobility, size and dependence.”
Those terms could be equated with age, McKechnie said.
In a report released last week, state investigators said Maples’ age appears to have been “considered as a major factor in the conclusion that she was not vulnerable.”
At least three reports in 2007 and 2009, when Maples had become isolated in home school, should have triggered visits to her home by state child protection workers, the investigation concluded.
Instead, screeners chose against intervention after each call.
In the state’s Multnomah County Child Welfare Hotline office in Portland, social workers do not assume older children are less vulnerable because of their age, said Miriam Green, program manager. Older children may have cognitive or developmental deficits, may be unable to defend themselves or may be isolated with nowhere to go, she said.
As a safeguard, she said, every report is shown to at least one supervisor and sometimes to police.
“We have to get it right 100 percent of the time,” Green said, “and we’re human beings.”
Her 18 screeners fill cubicles flowing over half of the second floor of a Department of Human Services building in east Portland. Police and prosecutors specializing in child abuse occupy the first floor.
The hot-line screeners take child abuse calls for Multnomah County around the clock, seven days a week, and for Washington and Clackamas counties on evenings and weekends. Last year they assigned about 8,000 cases in Multnomah County to social workers in field offices for further investigation. They closed about 6,800 other calls at the screenings.
Cindy Tillman, a part-time child welfare screener for the Portland hot line, said nearly half of the 20 or so calls she takes each week involve teenagers. She received one call this week, for example, of a girl being strangled by a parent. Tillman assigned the case to a social worker. The girl, who is now out of the home in a protective shelter, was interviewed by police and examined at a medical clinic specializing in child abuse. A social worker also interviewed her siblings at her home.
Green said her office has stepped up efforts recently to help older children pulled into sex trafficking and prostitution. The team also is exploring ways to better protect older kids who are home-schooled and isolated — children like Jeanette Maples.