Dss Enlists Computers To Monitor Child Abuse

August 07, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Spurred by rising reports of family violence, the Anne Arundel Department of Social Services has developed an innovative computer system to better track child abuse cases.

The department is the first in Maryland to use computer technology to record and retrieve reports ofchild abuse, which have doubled in the last decade.

Instead of spending hours filling out lengthy forms by hand, county social workers can log on to the computer to file a report, find afoster home or check whether a family has a history of violence.

"This saves a lot of time and manpower," said Director Ed Bloom. "It all happens almost instantaneously on the computer, so we can spend more time sending people out to do investigations."

Today, the department is receiving an award from the Maryland Association of Counties for its computer system, which was developed over the last two years. Stephen Sandbank, a social worker and computer wiz who wrote much of the software, and other officials will be recognized at a ceremonyat the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

"In the old days, you would write everything down on a yellow pad and then check through the files, which took at least half an hour," said David Ladd, assistant director of Child Protective Services, a division of the DSS. "The paperwork was just incredible."

More than 1,600 people in Anne Arundel County call each year to report suspected child abuse or neglect, Ladd said. The number of cases investigated by the department and recordedwith the state has increased dramatically, rising from 421 in 1980 to 814 in 1990.

Two social workers sit by the phone every weekday in the Glen Burnie office and type the called-in reports into the computer. The stories are often heart-rending, of babies left unattended,of 10-year-olds given crack cocaine and children sent to school hungry, dirty and bruised.

The new computer system helps social workers determine whether a child is in danger and needs to be removed fromthe home. A special risk assessment, developed by Action for Child Protection, a national child advocacy group, has been incorporated to give social workers guidelines on cases.

When a friend, neighbor or school teacher calls to report child abuse, the social worker asks a series of questions. Is the child immature, hyperactive or visibly bruised? Do the parents complain about disciplining their children? Have the parents been seen using drugs? The computer then helps determine whether the likelihood of mistreatment is high.

As soon as thesocial worker types in the information, the computer automatically prints out letters notifying the police and thanking the informant. The software reduced the time spent typing the forms by at least half an hour, Ladd said.

Social workers also can use the computer to reserve foster homes when children must be removed. The reservation system, which eliminates searching through files and calling a number of foster homes to find an available one, is being adopted by other social service agencies in the state.

The department began developing its software with a $120,000 grant in 1989. County Executive Robert R. Neall has pledged enough money to bring the remaining computers on line in the next year, Bloom said.

He expects to share the department's computer system with sister organizations throughout the state.Prince George's County has expressed interest in the Anne Arundel model, Bloom said, and other social services departments are likely to follow.

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