It is no secret that government attempts to do far too much. Yet much of what it should do, it does abysmally. The most vulnerable among us, our children, pay the price.

Most parents love their kids. However, there are some that physically and mentally abuse their children. Here, government must step in to protect these children. That some parents hurt their children is a painful reality. As a community, we should be shouting from the rafters, asking those who fail us, “What are you thinking?”

Researchers Ching-Tung Wang and John Holton estimate that more than one million U.S. children are victims of maltreatment each year. Abuse is a particular problem in Washington, D.C. Yet the authorities consistently fail to live up to their responsibilities.

The latest example is Banita Jacks, who has gone on trial for the murder of her four daughters. The children were variously beaten, strangled, and stabbed. Jacks’ problem came as no surprise to local authorities.

Reported the Washington Post: “At least five D.C. government agencies had contact with Jacks while she and her daughters lived a chaotic life. But the agencies, including the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and the public schools, never shared information with each other, and no follow-up investigations were done.”

City authorities also allowed Renee D. Bowman to adopt two children whose bodies were found in a large freezer last fall. Before being approved, Bowman had gone bankrupt, lost a house to foreclosure, and been convicted of threatening to hurt an elderly man.
Bowman was receiving $2400 a month to “care” for the two murdered girls, along with another adopted daughter who also was abused.

The District’s problems go back years. A decade ago Regina Brown was sliding into insanity. Those around her warned authorities, but even after she was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder nothing was done. Now she says she killed her eight-year-old son in obedience to “voices.”

In 1995, Keyona Debrew was born prematurely to a drug user who had had several children previously removed from her care for neglect. Roughly a month later Keyona was found dead. No social worker ever visited.

Of course, the District is not alone in failing to protect the weakest among us. Last year in Milwaukee, a 13-month old boy was murdered by his foster mother, Crystal Keith. Keith admitted to abusing Thomas for months despite the requirement for monthly visits from social workers. Another family member had been denied the opportunity to adopt the child.

The price of government failure is high: Abused, neglected, and murdered children-lost lives.

Even children who survive are scarred for life, physically and mentally. Wang and Holton write that “Adverse consequences for children’s development often are evident immediately, encompassing multiple domains including physical, emotional, social, and cognitive.” The National Child Protection Clearinghouse reports that “children who have been maltreated are more likely to become abusive parents.”

There are a plethora of programs directed at helping and protecting children. Tens of billions of dollars are spent annually-on welfare payments, foster care, adoption promotion, health care, and more. Law enforcement departments, social service agencies, family courts, and private contractors are all involved.

Even the worst systems are not without resources. For instance, the District spends more than $200 million annually on child welfare services. Yet the result all too often is failure. In some cases more money might be needed. In almost all cases current money must be better spent.

Obviously, it will never be possible to prevent all abuse and neglect. However, government has no higher calling than protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Yet the District has responded with indifferent, overworked, ill-trained, and incompetent bureaucracies.

In 2001, the Washington Post reported that “From 1993 through 2000, 229 children died after they or their families came to the attention of the District’s child protection system because of neglect or abuse complaints. In dozens of cases, police officers and social workers responsible for the safety of children failed to take the most basic steps to shield them from harm.”

In the case of baby Keyona Debrew, a city investigative committee “concluded that social worker caseloads were too high and that the workers were not trained to help substance-abusing parents,” explained the Post.

As for Banita Jacks, the D.C. Inspector General blamed city schools, nonprofits, social workers, and police. No one seemed to do their job to protect Nicki Spriggs, a disabled child sent out of state who was neglected and died.

Reported the Post: “Even though Nicki had a court-appointed attorney, three D.C. Superior Court judges, four agency supervisors and eight different District social workers assigned to her case, she was visited just twice during the six years she spent in Delaware.”

Wang and Holton figure that child abuse results in more than $33 billion in direct costs and more than $100 billion in indirect costs nationwide. The bigger price, of course, is the lost and damaged lives.

Most states could do better. But Washington, D.C., has become a model of what not to do. In May, reported the Post, “the District child’s welfare agency still fails to provide adequate care for abused and neglected children, a court-appointed monitor says.” How many more children must be abused and killed before city officials act?

Washington, D.C., hospital social worker Mary Kardauskas said: “I always hear from the agency, ‘Give the mother a chance’.” And, as Kardauskas told the Post, “people deserve a chance. But who was advocating for this child [who died]? What about her chance?”

What about her chance? What about the children? It is time Washington’s leaders kept faith with the least among us.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. Also, Bernard is author of Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before and is an MSNBC political analyst and a Sunday columnist with The Examiner.