IN A SPRINGFIELD, Mass., hospital, 11-year-old Haleigh Poutre has been in a coma for months, the victim of a beating so savage, allegedly at the hands of her adoptive mother and stepfather, that doctors initially pronounced her "virtually brain dead," with no hope of recovery.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., where the battered remains of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown were laid to rest at the Cypress Hills Cemetery last week, prosecutors accuse her mother and stepfather of repeatedly torturing and starving the little girl, eventually beating her to death because she took some yogurt from the refrigerator.
Could anything be more horrifying than the vicious abuse of an innocent child? And could anything be more natural, upon learning of such abuse, than to be outraged by the government's failure to prevent it?
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Social Services, which had been monitoring Haleigh's situation since 2004, is now being blasted for allowing her to remain under the same roof as two sadistic sociopaths.
Though DSS caseworkers had received more than a dozen reports that the girl was being abused or neglected, they never saw fit to move her to a different home. Harry Spence, the DSS commissioner, says that his agency was deceived by Haleigh's caretakers, who insisted that the child's burns and bruises were the result of accidents or self-inflicted wounds. But others say the police should have been called in the very first time an injury was observed, and note that this isn't the first time a child has died while under DSS supervision.
Meanwhile, Nixzmary's murder has led to a shakeup at the Administration for Children's Services, the New York City agency responsible for the protection of at-risk children. Eight staffers have been suspended, demoted, or reassigned; the agency is getting an additional $16 million to hire new managers and caseworkers; and an internal review of the city's entire caseload -- 10,000 child-protective cases -- is underway. Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists that he will not settle for "superficial changes," but similar sentiments were expressed when Children's Services, a $2.2 billion agency, was created in the first place. That was in 1995, after Elisa Izquierdo, a victim of repeated abuse by her mother, was starved and beaten to death.
These cases are horrific and infuriating, and the instinct to blame the government for not intervening sooner and more aggressively is entirely understandable. But zealous government intervention can also lead to horrific and infuriating results. How many innocent families have been swept up in recent years in child abuse investigations run amok? How many people's lives have been wrecked because they were prosecuted -- and in some instances convicted and imprisoned -- for monstrous crimes against children that they never committed?
Then there are all the cases -- less traumatic but still highly offensive - in which parents have learned to their shock that they are being investigated as possible child abusers on the basis of some third party's erroneous (or malicious) allegation. A year and a half ago, the DSS was notified by the director of a summer day camp that a woman with black-and-blue marks on her face had dropped off a boy who had small red wounds on his back. Was the woman a victim of domestic abuse? Had someone burned the boy's back with a cigarette? DSS opened an investigation.
In fact, the woman -- my wife -- was recovering from facial surgery a few days earlier and the young boy -- my son -- had scraped his back on the camp sliding board. Which is what we told the DSS investigator who was assigned to the case, and what she put in her final report -- along with whatever other information she gleaned in the course of two visits to our home, individual interviews with me, my wife, and our son (sample question: "What does your father do when he gets angry at you?"), and discussions with my wife's surgeon and counselors at the camp. Considering what can happen to children like Haleigh Poutre and Nixzmary Brown when the government doesn't act quickly and decisively, do I think the invasion of my family's privacy was justified? Yes. But it was an unpleasant and unsettling experience -- a reminder of just how easily Big Brother can wreak havoc in people's lives.
I am a great believer in private solutions to public ills. From education to the economy, my libertarian instinct is generally that the less government involvement, the better. But I recognize that the protection of children in abusive homes is not something that can be left to private initiative. The state must have the discretion and authority to act when a child's safety or life may be at risk.
But how much discretion and authority? Give the state too much power, and innocent men and women may end up in prison. Give the state too little, and an abused child may end up in a coma, or dead. There is no perfect solution, only a more-or-less balanced trade-off. The best we can do is try to get that balance right, and to minimize the errors -- the sometimes tragic errors -- that no system devised by human beings can ever completely avoid.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.