The most painful episode ever reported in this column -- for me and for many readers -- was the killing of little eight-month-old Angelo Marinda by his own father, two years ago. Little Angelo first came to the attention of the authorities when he was hospitalized with broken bones, just 12 days after he was born.
Instead of getting the baby out of that home and put up for adoption, the Child and Family Services of San Mateo, California put him in foster care. Then they kept sending him back home for visits, despite repeated evidence of abuse during those brief visits. Eventually, the agency sent him back to his death.
Now the same agency and the same judge seem to be repeating a similar pattern with Angelo's two-year-old sister, who has become the center of a child custody case.
A newspaper account puts it this way: "The mother of a murdered baby came close to losing her daughter Monday during a contentious hearing in San Mateo County juvenile court." The judge gave the mother "six months to get her life together with the help of Children and Family Services or risk losing her daughter."
Note how the focus is on the mother, not the child.
It is the mother's "risk" that the newspaper account features.
Somehow there has been built into the thinking, the laws and the practices of judges and social welfare agencies around the country the notion that there are "services" which can be provided by social workers that will turn parents of neglected or abused children into better people who can be trusted to take care of their children in the future.
This is called "family re-unification," so that children who have had to be removed from their homes and put into foster care can later be returned to their parents after an agency's "services" have worked their magic. It is a faith which passeth all understanding.
You might think that there would have to be a lot of hard evidence to convince the authorities to risk children's welfare and lives on this theory. But you would be wrong.
In California, the theory of family re-unification services was put forth by a Stanford professor many years ago and, when a study was commissioned a few years later, that study was done by the same professor -- and even he found the results inconclusive.
Yet children's well-being and even lives are still being gambled on an unsubstantiated notion.
It speaks volumes about the level of official irresponsibility that the authorities did not even try to get an objective evaluation of a policy with such profound consequences. Perhaps they feared what an objective evaluation might turn up.
Why such loyalty to an unsubstantiated theory?
That theory -- that faith -- enables judges and social workers to "do something" when confronted with tough and tragic family situations. Then, like Pontius Pilate, they can wash their hands -- and perhaps even look at themselves in the mirror.
The sad fact is that so much of what is called "expertise" is little more than political cover protecting decision-makers from accountability for their own actions. Whether in a social welfare agency, a university or a corporation, you can always say that you followed the advice of experts, in order to get yourself off the hook when things go wrong.
The tragic irony in the "family re-unification" gamble is that so many American families are so anxious to adopt children that they are going overseas to get them, in order to avoid the bureaucratic ordeals created by social welfare agencies here.
An agency called Children and Family Services has to provide services in order to justify its existence, regardless of whether those service are effective, ineffective or counterproductive. By maintaining "confidentiality," ostensibly to protect the privacy of children and families, the agency can insulate itself from public scrutiny and criticism.
What all this means is that everyone is protected -- except the children. The County Counsel's office in San Mateo has asked that the policy of holding court proceedings behind closed doors in child welfare cases be changed. The time is long overdue to let some light and some fresh air into these proceedings. It might even save some child's life.