Texans read the headlines — yet again — about a child suffering a horrible death. But the toddler’s death wasn’t due to foreign terrorists, nor from a domestic lone wolf who too easily obtained a gun. Nineteen-month-old J’Zyra Thompson’s assassin was from her own family: She was placed in an oven and burned to death by her 3-year-old siblings while her parents left her 5-year-old sister in charge of three babies. Mom’s boyfriend, who was “supervising,” reportedly left the children for a pizza run.
Understandably, we feel horror and sadness when hearing about children dying from abusive head trauma or other intentional acts directly inflicted by an adult. But as the allegations in J’Zyra’s death show, neglect can be just as deadly as any form of child abuse. Neglectful supervision continues to be the leading type of abuse in Texas, accounting for 77% of the confirmed victims in Texas in 2014. In 2013, 88 kids, or more than half, of the 156 child abuse and neglect fatalities involved neglectful supervision.
But child abuse fatalities are not inevitable. Horrible episodes such as those alleged in the circumstances of J’Zyra’s death are entirely preventable through education. Educating mom about appropriate caregivers, on child’s development stages and the age at which one can leave a child to supervise younger children is critical. Moreover, providing mom with a “respite care” or daycare resource could have prevented this ghastly tragedy.
Family support home visiting programs — where trained professionals, such as nurses and social workers provide parenting education in the home at the parent’s invitation - have shown in multiple clinical trials to consistently reduce child neglect, physical abuse and fatalities. This support is especially needed by first-time parents, who may lack the financial, familial and social supports that other new parents might take for granted.
In 2013, the Texas Legislature created the Protect Our Kids (POK) Commission, composed of a variety of Child Protection experts and advocates. The POK mission is to identify promising practices and evidence-based strategies to reduce abuse and neglect fatalities, develop recommendations and identify resources necessary for implementation, and develop guidelines for the types of information to be tracked to improve interventions.
On Dec. 2, the commission is slated to release its final report to the Legislature, and I am hopeful and confident that the recommendations will be turned into impactful legislation in the 2017 session — including further development of family support programs and other child abuse fatality prevention initiatives.
The solutions are within our reach and we can’t afford not to pursue them. In addition to saving lives, evidence-based home visiting programs show monetary returns as well. Estimates from the federal Centers for Disease Control show that, over its victims’ lifetimes, a year’s worth of child abuse and neglect costs the state a staggering $14.1 billion.
These costs are borne by our medical, special education, legal, and welfare systems, and by society generally in the lost productivity of both survivors and fatal victims. Family support home visiting returns $3-$6 for every $1 invested, especially in saved Medicaid costs.
The organization that I founded — TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children — and I have been advocating for funding and expansion of such practices and strategies for over 12 years now. Thanks to our friends in the Legislature, we have been successful in doing so, but as J’Zyra’s death shows, there are many more families that we still must reach.
J’Zyra’s death is, sadly, something that can never be undone. The potential that J’Zyra might have reached as a human being will never be realized.
We can and we must reduce these preventable deaths from child abuse and neglect. With your help in reaching out to your legislators, we will — by making every child’s homeland security start in the home.
McClure is the Founding CEO of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children at email@example.com.