How many agencies need to know a child is in danger before someone acts? That’s the question New Yorkers must demand an answer to after last week’s horrific death of 3-year-old Shaquan Butler allegedly at the hands of his father (and namesake).
Shaquan died of blunt force trauma to the torso. When he was found unconscious and with only a faint pulse in his parents’ apartment at a Queens homeless shelter, he had visible injuries in various stages of healing. But one needn’t have looked at Shaquan’s body to realize what was going on.
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services removed the boy and his two younger siblings from their parents’ custody in September but soon returned them to the alleged abuser. Though the children’s court-appointed lawyer objected, a family-court judge decided they should resume overnight visits anyway. ACS agreed to return Shaquan but didn’t think returning his younger sister was a good idea. The judge, Alison Hamanjian, thought she knew better.
When Shaquan was found, his mother told authorities he was choking on a chicken nugget when he ran into a pole and struck his head on the floor. What other absurd tales did she tell ACS and family court to get her kids back last month?
It wasn’t just the child-welfare system aware of the danger Shaquan and his siblings faced; the justice system knew, too. Shaquan’s parents both have significant criminal records. His father has been arrested 24 times as an adult for gang assault, inciting to riot, criminal mischief, petty larceny, grand larceny and weapons possession; his mother has five arrests under her belt, including one for weapons possession and another for grand larceny. Did this seem like a couple who would keep their children safe after they’d already been reported for maltreatment?
Then there’s the fact Shaquan was apparently being beaten regularly inside a homeless shelter. Did no other residents say anything? Is there really so little supervision in shelters that a man with such a record can not only live there but get away with this kind of violent behavior?
Many people think of child abuse as a problem hidden behind closed doors — like the Turpin family in Southern California, who kept their 13 children in a basement for years while even their closest neighbors had no idea. But we largely know who these families are. We are investigating these cases and either failing to remove kids in danger or removing them and immediately returning them.
More than two-thirds of Kentucky’s child fatalities and near-fatalities in the past five years involved cases already known to child-welfare agencies, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found. Of Pennsylvania’s 220 substantiated fatalities and near-fatalities between 2014 and ’16, nearly two-thirds of the children or families were involved with the county’s children and youth agency before or at the time of the incident.
We could certainly be doing more to use the data we have to figure out which children are at risk. Pilot programs using predictive analytics, like the one Allegheny County, Pa., adopted a couple of years ago, can help these cases come to the attention of higher-ups who might override poor decisions by frontline caseworkers.
But then, they might not. Releasing its latest data a few weeks ago, the federal Children’s Bureau reiterated its commitment to ensuring “equitable outcomes,” meaning child protective services should investigate and take into foster care children of all races at similar rates. But the truth is that black children like Shaquan are three times as likely to die from maltreatment as white children. Focusing on “equitable” outcomes will inevitably mean more black children left in dangerous homes.
Is it any wonder 504 black children died from maltreatment in 2020 — 73 more than in 2019? Aysha Schomburg, Children’s Bureau associate commissioner, compared child-welfare authorities to plantation overseers in an essay this year. She advised Americans: “Save Black children from that knock on the door and that tunnel of child welfare, out of which they may never see their way.”
But spare a thought for Shaquan Butler. Maybe he heard that knock on the door and thought he might finally see a light at the end of the tunnel, only to watch adults turn their backs and the world go dark.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”