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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 6, No. 3
June 2001

Child Fatalities and the Media

Friction between the child welfare system and the media is often most pronouncedwhen a child involved with the system dies. In the worst cases, the department of social services (DSS), motivated by the desire to aid criminal investigations and prosecutions and restricted by laws about confidentiality, must sit by while newspapers and TV run stories that, from the DSS perspective, focus on the wrong things or distort the facts.

Some observers worry that negative media coverage hurts not only DSS's morale, but social work practice. When they feel besieged and demoralized, social workers may be more likely to make errors, either removing children from their families without sufficient cause or allowing them to remain at home even when there are clear safety concerns (Mendes, 2000).

Understanding the media can help prevent this worst case scenario. Most reporters and journalists are not "out to get" social workers or the child welfare system. Rather, they are motivated by their responsibility to provide the public with information. Indeed, some of the journalists who most persistently cover child welfare issues are driven by a desire to build awareness about issues related to child safety and well being.

Assuming all media coverage will be negative can lock you into an adversarial relationship with the media. Instead:

  • Build a relationship with journalists, editors, and TV and radio
    producers in your area before a crisis occurs
    . Make sure they understand the strengths of your organization, its needs, and the services it provides to families, children, and the whole community.
  • Prepare an agency-wide strategy for dealing with unwelcome press interest. This should include protocols for who speaks with the media, and for the explanations given if you cannot provide them with the information they seek.
  • Understand North Carolina's Public Records Law as it applies to your agency in cases of child fatalities or near-fatalities (see Child Fatalities and the NC Public Records Law).
  • Create a forum in which staff can discuss negative coverage of your agency in the media when a crisis does occur. This is an opportunity to support staff and shore up morale.


Gough, D. (1996). The literature on child abuse and the media. Child Abuse Review, 5, 363-376.

Mendes, P. (2000). Social conservatism vs. social justice: The portrayal of child abuse in the press in Victoria, Australia. Child Abuse Review, 9, 49-61.