The question of whether or not social service agencies are serving the public was answered inside a small Collingswood house last month. Unfortunately, the starvation tragedy of Bruce Jackson and his brothers has proven once again the inability of these offices to do anything for the welfare of the public.
It has been all over the media lately and for good reason. A story that simultaneously pulls at the heartstrings and calls for government reform is rare enough. But one involving 19-year-olds who stand 4-feet-tall, found eating out of a garbage can by a neighbor who thought he was a raccoon, is news.
Let’s get one thing straight here: The facts of this case are complicated. For years, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services believed that the adopted children of Raymond and Vanessa Jackson had eating disorders and were medically fragile. This may yet prove to be true.
But the fact remains that after a month’s hospitalization, Bruce Jackson grew one inch and gained 21 pounds. This is the same child whose foster parents claimed that he gnawed on drywall and that his stunted growth was caused by preexisting medical conditions.
Bruce’s growth raises questions about his foster parents. Frauds? Deluded? In over their heads?
But, DYFS should have been there to find out the real story. They were not. And that is where the real tragedy lies.
No state agency dealing in the welfare of children should ever have to decline to the point where union representatives tell Congressional committees that they are “consistently and grossly under-funded” and that their agency lacks essential resources to continue in their mission.
The caseworker responsible for the Jacksons was handling more than 30 cases because of budget cuts and a high turnover rate at the agency. But the Child Welfare League of America urges that caseworkers handling cases such as theirs handle no more than 15. DYFS has to deal with a turnover rate that hovers around 9 percent annually and loose state regulations that leave loopholes, especially for foster families, that could have a Mack truck driven through them.
This is how the Jacksons were able to get away with not taking their children to the doctor for five years. This is how DYFS was able to rot through a combination of under-funding and loose regulatory oversight.
This is how, in the richest country in the world, children resembling Ethiopian or Cambodian atrocity victims were allowed to grow up in New Jersey.
But here in Philadelphia, we need to make sure that this wake-up call to our city and state social service agencies encourages some sort of change. Our own agencies are suffering from budgetary neglect similar to DYFS, and it will doubtlessly become worse once Harrisburg confirms our new budget. Reform of social service agencies will only take place through an extended fiscal commitment from the state. Either Pennsylvania will have to give up that money or Collingswood will happen on this side of the Delaware. It’s that simple.