Heartbreaking Tragedy Affects Us All

Damarcus Jackson’s heartbreaking death has this community – and JFS – asking serious questions.

This tragedy has reverberated through our building. When a child in our care dies, we take it very personally. Even more than that, several here had come to know Damarcus, and his loss has left them with heavy hearts.

I assure you we, as much as anyone, want to get answers to those questions. We welcome a system-wide examination of the decision making surrounding this young boy’s case. We also welcome the opportunity to educate the public about the child welfare system.

It is difficult to explain to the public how complicated child welfare cases can be. They are a constant balance between the safety of the child and the right of the parents to parent. Careful thought goes into the difficult decision to remove a child or reunify a family and many people from many different entities play a part in that decision. There is never a simple solution to any family’s problem, but instead a host of options and often more than one is needed to truly help. Ultimately, each case requires a human decision based on predicting human behavior.

What we do know is safety is the absolute, number one concern. If we do not feel a child can be safely returned to their parent’s home, we do not reunify. But we also know foster care was never meant to be a permanent solution and children want the bond of family in their lives. Most children will do better with their parents than in the foster care system if we can just supply the support needed for the family to thrive.

Most children want to be with their mom and dad. I can tell you of dozens of children who have remained in the foster care system for most of their lives but, as soon as they turned 18, went right back to mom and dad.

We are constantly faced with incredibly difficult decisions when it comes to abused and neglected children. Should a drug addict permanently lose the right to parent their children? Will someone who has abused their child once, do it repeatedly, even after counseling and other services to help them control their anger and become better parents? Is a child better off in foster care than with a struggling parent?

Here at JFS, caseworkers undergo extensive training to help them make that decision. They use risk and safety-assessment tools to determine the risk to children and the parents’ capacity to protect their children. They work in tandem with other professionals charged with treating and evaluating the family.

The reunification decision is not made in a vacuum. What is good about Hamilton County’s system is that we have many eyes and ears on the family as they go through this process. Not only does JFS play a part in this decision, but so do court advocates for the children, providers, foster parents and the independent magistrate who actually makes the ultimate determination.

Unfortunately, this is a process that involves human judgment and relies on predicting human behavior. Sometimes, we, and those who work with us, make mistakes. Other times, we do everything right and the outcome is still tragic.

When that occurs, I can assure you it affects us here. I have consoled more than one crying caseworker who has lost a child they’ve grown to love. We also take it seriously. We investigate very death or serious injury, searching for missed red flags and policies and procedures that might be changed. If there is something to learn, we want to make sure we bring it to the forefront.

We will do the same with Damarcus’ death. We have also called for an independent system-wide investigation to determine if there are any system improvements that might come from this tragedy.

We help 16,000 children a year. That is one of every 13 Hamilton County children. If there is anything that can be learned from this tragedy, we owe it to each one of those children to make sure we do everything possible to keep them safe.

Five years ago, in the wake of Marcus Fiesel’s tragic death, this community debated the safety of foster homes. Now, we discuss whether a child would not have been safer in a foster home than with his own parents.

For those in child welfare, the debate plays out daily. Ultimately, after all the training, services, risk-assessment tools, court hearings and more, it comes down to a human judgment that the adult entrusted to care for that child will provide a safe environment.

When that judgment is wrong, it is devastating to us all.

by Jim Tinker

Filed Under: Communication

Tagged: child abuse, damarcus jackson, hamilton county department of job and family services, moira weir