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Editorial: Failing a child again and again

Sketch released by Chicago Police Department.

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Sometime in the last week or two, a toddler went missing. Surely someone knows something about it.

Maybe someone who remembers the child doesn’t want to come to grips with the worst: Someone killed the child. Then someone dismembered him or her. That’s what happened to this innocent toddler police think was between 2 and 4 years old, whose body parts were found in the Garfield Park Lagoon last weekend.

Because only pieces of the body have been found, we still don’t know if we’re talking about a boy or girl. Police released a sketch of the child Thursday.

Such a despicable act shakes our core, but it must also shake the conscience into action. Those who know something must speak up and call police, even if all they recall is a family with a baby quickly packing up and moving away in the last few weeks.

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This crime cannot go unsolved and unpunished. “A simple fact,” Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said Thursday, “a helpless child should never end up in that condition.”

We are left with questions: How could this have been prevented? How do we keep it from happening again? And how do we help other children who are being abused or neglected? We expect police and the Department of Children and Family Services to protect kids, but when it comes down to it, it falls on all of us to keep them safe.

We still don’t know the history of this toddler. So we don’t know if anyone reported abuse. But he or she is about to go in the books as a tragic statistic for fiscal year 2016.

DCFS investigates well over 100 child fatalities each year, often more than 200. In fiscal year 2015 DCFS investigated 137 child fatalities, of which 59 were related to abuse or neglect, the agency found. Thirty-seven investigations are still pending. Of the 211 child deaths investigated by DCFS for fiscal 2014, there were 103 findings of abuse or neglect, down 10 from the previous year.

For FY 2014, DCFS found that 26,785 kids were abused and neglected in Illinois among the 109,784 children reported to the agency. DCFS records show the findings of abuse and neglect rose sharply from FY 2013, but they are expected to drop significantly once “unfounded” determinations are applied retroactively after appeals and court-mandated changes.

The disparity between reports of child abuse and actual findings of abuse or neglect is not a bad thing. It shows that contrary to public perception not every call to DCFS results in a child being separated from family and going into the dreaded government system.

People should err on the side of caution and call the DCFS hotline if they’re not sure if a child is being victimized, said George H. Sheldon, acting director for DCFS. “Folks on the hotline know the right questions to ask,” to better assess the child’s situation, he said.

Signs of abuse are something an average person could see, Sheldon reminded us. Is a child running around unsupervised? Is the child dirty or malnourished? Are there loud voices coming frequently from the child’s home?

In two or three months, DCFS will start using predictive analytics to protect vulnerable children, according to Sheldon, similar to technology Tampa started using after nine children died in homicides in a 24-month span ending in 2012. It will give the agency greater capability and speed to identify patterns of abuse.

Such improvements don’t take the burden off the rest of us. We cannot keep failing our children.

How many times are people going to fail the toddler found in Garfield Park? Anyone who has information or knows of a missing child can call police at 312-744-8261. Those who know something and don’t come forward fail the child again and again.

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