Daniel Soto was abused throughout his short life. He suffered a fractured skull when he was just six weeks old and died before his second birthday. The Mercer County Prosecutor's Office charged the boy's mother, Maritza Soto, with beating Daniel to death.
Daniel is a tragic example of the sorry condition of our social services system, but he isn’t alone. Faheem Williams had his case closed by family services, and then the seven-year-old boy’s body was found in storage bin in a Newark home. Since then a series of reports detailing the numerous failings within the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services have been released. It is time to protect our children – and a few minor adjustments won’t do it, we need to overhaul the system.
In October 2001, Daniel Soto’s mother took her twin boys to a hospital, saying they had injured themselves in a tub. Daniel had a cracked skull and other fractures – suffered at least three days earlier. New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services found that the twins had been physically abused and neglected. The children spent a year in foster care but were returned to their parents after therapists and counselors said the family was ready to be reunited.
If a fractured skull and other fractures on a six-week-old child aren’t serious enough for social workers to keep the child from being put back into the home, it begs the question, is anything short of death going to prevent the child from being returned to that dangerous situation?
At least four agencies were involved in monitoring Daniel Soto’s parents. These numerous agencies often fail to communicate with each other and can’t be held accountable. Child advocacy centers are proving to be an effective solution to this dilemma. The centers bring multiple government and nonprofit agencies under one roof – they were originally created because young abuse victims are often forced to recount their traumatic stories over and over in interviews when social services agencies fail to share the information or coordinate their activities. These one-stop child advocacy centers organize the process and merge differing approaches to child abuse cases by focusing on prosecuting the offender while simultaneously providing therapeutic services to the victim and non-offending family members. There are already 400 such centers across the country, including Ginnie’s House in Sussex County, with more than 1,000 multi-disciplinary teams investigating child abuse. Preliminary research finds that child advocacy centers reduce the number of child abuse interviews per victim, improve collaboration among agencies, result in fewer foster care placements for children, and increase prosecution and conviction rates.
These independent nonprofit centers provide a neutral, child-friendly facility where all government agencies can interview and examine a child in a coordinated process – limiting the additional trauma to the victim. Representatives from law enforcement, child protective services, district attorneys, victim advocacy groups, and medical and mental health providers are synchronized by the centers and meet regularly to discuss the investigation, treatment of the victim, and prosecution of the child abuser. The centers also provide a central tracking system for each child—preventing them from getting lost in the system.
Daniel Soto’s life and death demonstrates the inherent conflict in our social services system between those who believe prosecuting the offender is the best way to reduce child abuse versus those who believe therapy is the best way to prevent abuse. Child advocacy centers help parents, but also seek justice to ensure that kids are not re-victimized by the very system designed to protect them.
In the United States, less than 20 percent of substantiated abuse cases are prosecuted – an astonishingly low number. The parents in the Soto case should have been held criminally responsible for the fractured skull he suffered when he was a mere six weeks old. Think about it, if they had fractured the skull of a child that was not related to them, or fractured the skull of another adult, they would have been charged with assault. Instead the Soto parents received anger management classes, free housecleaning and eventually their children were returned to the home.
We can’t undue the way we failed Daniel Soto, but it isn’t too late for thousands of other children. For those kids, a child advocacy center may be their best shot.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.