September 4, 2014
The Boy Who Couldn’t be Saved, a front page story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sunday August 31st, gave us a detailed, insider view of the challenges we face as a society trying to address one of the most heartbreaking problems: ongoing, malicious abuse of a child. The abuse of Eric Dean was not due to a lack of parenting knowledge or coping skills. This kind of abuse was due to an astounding lack of empathy and emotional connection of a step-parent to their step-child. This kind of abuse cannot be solved by parenting classes or education. Lack of empathy and lack of connection by a parent to a child will not end well. In Eric Dean’s case, the worst happened. Unfortunately there are many more children who live broken lives as a result of this sort of appalling abuse.
So why was Eric Dean not removed from his home and placed in a safe environment? My answer is twofold. First off, as a society, we are still in denial that this type of malicious child abuse can happen. We don’t understand it, we are shocked by it and we don’t want to think about it. As kind as this denial is to our souls, it is dangerous to our world because it blinds the eyes of those who can make a difference. In this case, denial closed the eyes of Eric’s father and Eric’s extended family. Denial also closed the eyes of Eric’s social worker and her supervisor, leaving Eric in a living hell for the entire 3 years of his precious life.
Second, as a society, we do not place enough value on the need to put all of our children’s welfare first. If we wholeheartedly decided that all children’s well being came first, there would be no more denial of child abuse. If we sincerely decided that we will work together to protect all children, no one would be able to close their eyes to the possibility of abuse. And no one could get away with abusing a child for years at a stretch.
It would be easy to blame one social worker (or one county) for this failure and call it a day but that would be unfair. While there has to be a discerning eye on the system that failed Eric Dean, we as a community, must take the blame for Eric’s death. The social workers that face these damaged families on a daily basis do so in an earnest effort to help. Unfortunately, they are stretched due to budgetary constraints and are faced with huge caseloads, pressure to close cases as fast as they can and often are thrown into the fray without adequate training and mentoring. Finally, let’s be honest, they do not have our utmost support; most of us probably don’t even know what their work actually entails. We wince when they talk to us about their work. We turn away from their daily anguish. When what we should be doing is giving them praise, honor and our thanks for the immense challenge they face on a daily basis.
The next time, you meet a child protection worker, thank them for their work. Ask them what they need to keep going and what would make a difference? Call your county commissioner and tell them that you want them to work towards ending this kind of suffering. Be sure that when you vote, you are voting for an elected official who will commit to making the end of child abuse a priority. When you look at your family, friends and community be sure you are doing everything thing you can to support the children and families in your midst. We lost 3 year old Eric Dean; we should not have to lose another child. Let’s all work together to end child abuse.