To honor Chantel’s memory

No greater sin than inflicting misery and pain on a child.

The darkness, when God seems silent, fell on Chantel Craig, a 19-month Tulalip girl and her 3-year-old sister. Chantel died, her sister survived. Last October, they sat strapped in their car seats like victims of a plane crash, abandoned by their drug-addled mother, festering in a derelict vehicle for days.

Agony has a face. Chantel was “severely malnourished” according to the postmortem. She was blanketed by lice, urine, bed bugs, feces and “a bleeding rash.” Her mom has been charged with murder.

Chantel’s death, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner, was neglect. And “neglect” is the operative word. Chantel and her sister fell away from social workers, social workers freighted by heavy case loads but laboring to do the right thing. They slipped through the latticework of state and tribal oversight.

Now the state and the Tulalip Tribes need to work in common cause, to address communication misfires, and to embrace solutions with teeth.

The Herald’s Diana Hefley served as an official observer of the Child Fatality Review, the investigation and report on Chantel’s death, conducted by the Department of Social and Health Services’ Children Administration. Her reporting crystallized the tragedy.

“They were asked to inspect the net,” Hefley writes. “Maybe it can be woven tighter so another little girl won’t fall through, dying before she learns to twirl on tiptoes or color inside the lines or dream of being a princess or a firefighter.”

The fatality review produced four findings and three recommendations that demand action. Priority one is to delineate specific social worker responsibilities in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Tulalip Tribes and DSHS Children’s Administration. Tribal and state employees navigate the MOU’s vague language like a United Nations compact. Elastic wording doesn’t help case workers who need to know their specific role.

The MOU is authorized by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 to oversee the custody and care of Indian children. The act is a window on a tainted legacy, when the United States regularly removed Indian children from their homes and traditional culture.

The review’s second and third recommendations are manageable. Retaining and hiring more Child Protective Services workers is doable with additional funding from the Legislature. CPS workers are committed and professional. In Chantel’s case, they didn’t have the resources for critical follow-through, however.

As the second finding highlights, the committee was concerned about the “lack of documented attempts to locate the family” for six months, from December 2011 to May 2012.

Active cases require a monthly review by a supervisor. There is no documentation that any reviews occurred between May 7, 2012, and Oct. 8 the same year. Are revolving-door supervisors to blame? The Children’s Administration might consider an administrative bucket for overworked CPS workers to send follow-ups that can’t be met (with no penalty for acknowledging they simply don’t have time.) Another CPS worker would be assigned to help. The Catch-22 is this approach might disrupt continuity, a concern the committee underlined when supervisory coverage changes.

Bureaucracies are soulless, social workers are not. To make the Chantel Craig tragedy right presupposes that human nature, including the menace of drugs and child abuse, is tractable. It isn’t. So we begin changing what we can, starting with the fatality review’s recommendations. Chantel deserves as much.

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