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Advocates Decry Forgotten ‘Red Flags’ in Child Abuse, Neglect Cases


As child abuse attorneys and advocates who fight for children abused, neglected or injured in the child welfare system, we often see countless instances of “red flags” that should have warned caregivers and authorities about how to handle or care for the children in specific cases.

Often, those warnings go ignored or forgotten. A child who should not be placed or left alone with other children for fear of his violent or sexual aggression, a parent who shouldn’t be reunited with his or her children, a community based care provider or child welfare organization that has been flagged in the past for lapses in care or judgment… The list is endless – and only as informative as it is retrievable from archives – or caseworkers’ or advocates’ memories.

In his story in Youth Today, Daniel Pollack, a professor at the School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York City, and a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases, explores the need for better tracking of red flags and warnings that can help advocates and caregivers better protect children under their care.

“Child welfare workers can avert disasters by doing one simple thing: Note red-flag concerns front and center,” he writes. “A doctor knows immediately if you are allergic to aspirin, are diabetic, have a pacemaker, etc. Such information is not concealed deep in a stack of files. Any health professional who picks up the chart, electronic or paper, is alerted to critical information immediately. Why? Because it’s literally on the first page.”

We need to place red flags prominently where they will help protect the children. This could be hand-written notes in a child’s file, entries in his computer record, even a sticky-note on the folder or packet that should follow the child wherever she travels through the child welfare system.

“Red flags” also mean we must remember cases or children in particularly precarious situations. It’s not about placing a note on a file. It’s remembering that a certain child has specific needs that, if forgotten or left unaddressed, could cause him or her or those around them great harm.

Addressing or accessing this form of “institutional knowledge” is vital to ensuring children’s needs are met and they are protected from potential perils. Not doing so, Mr. Pollack writes, can be disastrous.

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