That’s how many times the state visited Joel Watts’ family before his tragic and untimely death from an opioid overdose. He was merely 12 years old.
Closer to home, the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) investigated Chaskah Davis Smith‘s family on three different occasions.
But those visits weren’t enough to save Chaskah. His grandmother was indicted for murdering him in 2022.
In both cases, the families were known to the state’s child protection agency. In Arizona, 46% of abuse and neglect deaths involved a prior history with the state’s child welfare agency.
Sadly, Joel and Chaskah’s deaths were preventable.
After such tragic losses of life, the question is rightfully asked, “What could we have done to protect them?” Too often, too little analysis is done to answer that question. Too often, nothing changes.
Arizona Senate Bill 1252, championed by Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, recognizes these deaths are preventable, and we desperately need to chart a path toward change that will ultimately save lives.
This bill requires independent investigations of child fatalities for children like Chaskah. It would establish a Child Maltreatment Fatality Review Committee, a multidisciplinary team of individuals with expertise ranging from pediatrics to the law to review child fatalities. This committee will seek to answer, “What could we have done better to protect them?”
These investigators will have access to crucial records currently closed to public scrutiny. With access to these records, the committee will be able to understand the details of each child maltreatment fatality and review the laws, policies, and practices of the child protection system to uncover what went wrong and why a child was left in a life-threatening situation.
Building on the valuable data gathered by the current Arizona Child Fatality Review Team at the Department of Health Services, this new committee will be able to delve deeper into our interagency system of laws, practices and services that comprise the child safety system.
The Arizona Fatality Report states, “100% of abuse/neglect deaths were preventable.” At The Center for the Rights of Abused Children, we agree.
It is time for the legislature to pass Senate Bill 1252 and to establish an independent committee whose sole purpose is to dive deep into the circumstances of child fatalities, pinpoint where the system can be improved, and discover how to strengthen protections for at-risk children.
It’s too late for Joel and Chaskah, but it’s not too late to prevent another child known by DCS from dying. And when the question is asked, “What could we have done to protect them?”
We’ll finally have an answer.
Brad Galbraith is a research attorney for The Center for the Rights of Abused Children.