What should have been a simple visit to a Baltimore-area emergency room has changed David Hodge's life forever.
He and his wife walked into the hospital as concerned parents with a sick baby and left suspected of child abuse.
Later the Hodges were cleared of any possibility that they physically abused their infant son. The state's child-protection system worked, but only after a mistake had been made.
A doctor at the hospital thought the child had a broken wrist, and reported the injury to the authorities. Actually the problem was an unusual infection, not a fracture.
This discovery cleared Hodge, but the nightmare experience still has a grip on the 36-year-old south Carroll County man.
"I'll admit it, I'm paranoid," says Hodge, noting that the state now has a file on him. "I think they're going to come after me again. We're never going to be safe."
No one disputes the need for a system to quickly separate a child from an abusive parent, and to punish abusers. The Maryland system includes doctors, the police, prosecutors, the criminal and juvenile courts and local social-services departments, which come under the state Department of Human Resources.
But critics of the system used here and in many other states say that it sometimes errs -- as with David Hodge -- or overreacts, splitting up families when evidence is hazy.
"If there's some possibility a parent is abusing a child, we're quite ready to throw away the Bill of Rights," says Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the first director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
GAVE UP CHILDREN
In Carroll County, a woman had to give up her two young children even though there never was enough evidence to charge her with abusing them. Her name is not used here to protect the identity of the family.
She says she was urged by social workers to admit sexually molesting her children and accept treatment, or a juvenile court would place the children in a foster home.
The woman says she has tried to work with the Carroll County Department of Social Services, attending whatever therapy has been recommended, but she never said she was guilty.
Two years later, her children are in their fourth foster home. The state now appears to be moving toward reunification of the family.
Carolyn Colvin, secretary for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, insists that procedures deciding the fate of children are balanced and fair, and that local social-services departments are not the decision makers.
"If we had the power to take children out of their homes, then I would agree it was unfair. But it is decided in the courts," Colvin says.
And Sharon Duncan of the Child Advocacy Network, an independent agency that helps in child abuse investigations, says that social workers are required to document their cases well when they appear in juvenile court.
"You just can't remove the child," she says. "There has to be a petition, written statements. It has to be documented. You have to have times and dates and places in order for it even to get consideration."
For David Hodge, the encounter with the child-protection system was chilling, though officials say such mistakes are infrequent.
A former police officer now completing his doctorate in microbiology, Hodge says he cherishes his family with the intensity of one who came close to losing his wife and baby during a medical emergency.
Two years ago, when she was seven months pregnant, Marsha Hodge was admitted to University Hospital with dangerously high blood pressure. The condition threatened both her and the child, so doctors performed an emergency Caesarean section.
At birth, Joseph Hodge weighed 2 pounds, 4 ounces, and required weeks of special care in the hospital.
When discharged, the baby weighed 4 1/2 pounds and had over 50 puncture marks on his wrists and ankles from the intravenous lines that had been attached to his tiny body, his parents say.
In January 1989, when Joseph was about three months old, his mother noticed that his wrist had become red and swollen. The Hodges took him to Carroll County General Hospital, where the problem was diagnosed as a fracture, and the child remained overnight.
The next morning, the doctor informed David Hodge that the injury had been reported to the county Department of Social Services. State law requires physicians to make such reports.
This was a Saturday, but Hodge wanted the matter cleared up. He says he had to call the social-services department to get an investigator to come to the hospital. Although abuse reports are supposed to be investigated within 24 hours, Hodge says he initially was told he would have to wait until Monday or Tuesday.
Finally, at 6 p.m. Saturday, a state trooper and an investigator from social services interviewed Hodge and his wife.