We Killed Dontel Jeffers

March 16, 2005
Peter Pollard

The Boston Globe
I am responsible for the death of Dontel Jeffers. Not because of any act of violence I committed against the 4-year-old boy who died in foster care in Dorchester on March 6. I never met him or even heard his name until his death. I am responsible for the death of Dontel Jeffers because of my silence.
After serving 14 years as a front line social worker for the Department of Social Services, I know his death is the direct, predictable result of a system overburdened, underfunded, and largely ignored, except when a tragedy involving an abused or neglected child erupts in the headlines. Then, as a community, we look for somewhere to point a finger of blame.

I'll start with me.

For 14 years, I struggled with my colleagues at DSS, many of whom had dedicated their entire working lives, committed to the seemingly impossible task of protecting children from physical, emotional, and sexual violence and neglect. In most instances, by the time families came to our notice, the children were already seriously harmed. Our efforts to help were stymied by severely limited funding for therapy, nearly nonexistent pediatric psychiatric services, courts so clogged that trials to determine a child's future often stretched out for more than a year, and a foster-care crisis so dire that good homes are drowned in placements, and that the temptation to accept mediocre caregivers has become too great to resist.
DSS is so overwhelmed with casualties, it is reduced to operating like a field hospital, making triage decisions on small children's lives. But as a social worker, I felt we were the frontline defense, doing our best with what we'd been given. So I'll admit that when I had misgivings about a foster home or a residential placement or a hospital discharge, I often saw no choice but to accept quietly what I knew was inadequate. And though lack of alternatives was a factor, I'm embarrassed to admit that that calculation inevitably also included loyalty to the system, to my coworkers, and fear of the personal consequences of rocking the boat.
But I should have been shouting, openly declaring that those inadequacies threatened the very children we were trying to help.
I am responsible for Dontel Jeffers's death because of my silence. And so are thousands of social workers, agency managers, community mental health workers, foster parents, judges, police and probation officers, attorneys, and teachers who every day see firsthand the evidence of the gradual diminishment in these already victimized children's lives.
Each in his own way has accepted the limitations of the system, passing from anger to frustration to resignation to quiet defeat. They should be shouting too, declaring that our refusal to do more is in fact society's crime of neglect.
As adults, we pay lip service to our commitment to keep children safe. But we don't have the courage to really face the depth of their vulnerability or the enormity of our failure. If you want proof, try breaking the silence by bringing up child abuse at a social gathering. Collectively, we've handed that ugly topic over to someone else. We've horribly shirked our personal responsibility to protect Dontel Jeffers and thousands like him who are our neighbors.
For Dontel, it's too late. But as a community, we should be openly declaring our willingness to open our eyes and our hearts to provide the enormous resources required to save the others. Effective early intervention could ultimately bring huge benefits in the form of well-functioning families and curtailed cycles of violence, sexual abuse, homelessness, and substance abuse. But the investment has to be made because it's right, not just because it's cost effective.
I am responsible for Dontel Jeffers's death because of my silence. And so are you.

Peter Pollard, a social worker for 14 years at the Department of Social Services, is a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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