Reading through the state Department of Human Services’ public reports on the deaths of children in DHS-involved families is not for the faint of heart. In the past few years, at least a couple of kids were killed in car wrecks when a parent drove intoxicated. One apparently committed suicide, and some died of neglect. A shocking number, according to 14 of 18 investigations in 2018, died as a result of what the department calls unsafe sleep, generally infants sharing a bed, couch or chair with a sleeping parent.
If a bill approved by the 2019 Legislature works as it’s supposed to, that could change. The measure, Senate Bill 832, was sponsored by Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, perhaps the most outspoken critic of the way DHS handles the state’s most vulnerable children. New, tighter rules governing investigations into child deaths were to have been fully in use by Tuesday.
The new law requires that Critical Incident Review Teams be formed within about a week whenever there’s a reasonable belief that neglect or abuse was responsible for a child’s death. It also beefs up public reporting requirements, in part by requiring information about each CIRT review to be published on the DHS website within 10 days after the report is received.
The reports will allow DHS to draw lessons, if there are any, from specific incidents, increase accountability to the public and allow the agency to make improvements to the system more quickly.
The state’s CIRTs from 2017 to today are tough to read. In a perfect world, the reports make it clear that most if not all those children would have been alive today under different circumstances.
Their deaths cannot be undone, but if all the goals are met, they should help make children living in difficult circumstances safer, and that’s no small thing.