Bill would expand testimony in child abuse cases

January 16, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Almost one-third of the state's child-protection workers are barred from providing hearsay evidence in abuse cases, a city prosecutor told senators yesterday.

But the Department of Human Resources wants to change that in a bill that would allow testimony from unlicensed social workers.

While a 1988 law allows licensed psychologists, educators, doctors and social workers to testify about statements made by children under age 12, it does not extend to unlicensed social workers.

Yet unlicensed workers make up almost one-third of the state's protective services staff -- 170 out of 550, according to the Department of Human Resources.

Part of the problem is the budget, officials said, because agencies can't offer high enough salaries to maintain completely licensed staffs.

Charles A. Chiapparelli, chief of the Child Abuse Division of Baltimore's state's attorney's office, said he has seen "case upon case upon case" in which statements from unlicensed social workers could not be used.

"Doesn't this [the bill] make it easier to get convictions?" asked Sen. Frederick C. Malkus, D-Dorchester, at a hearing before the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"Of course," Mr. Chiapparelli replied, adding that it also could result in more guilty pleas and fewer trials.

The legislation is one of two child-abuse bills introduced so far in the Senate. The other, inspired by parents who were wrongly accused of child abuse, would require videotaping a child's first interview with authorities.

In the hearsay bill, the Department of Human Resources and children's advocates testified in favor of what they deemed "a very small change."

But George M. Lipman, a Baltimore public defender and the only person to testify against the bill, said it was part of a trend to chip away at defendants' rights. "There's this little creep going on," said Mr. Lipman, noting that advocates want to expand the scope of those who can testify to include school psychologists.

Ellen Mugmon of the Governor's Council on Child Abuse and Neglect said Maryland's current law is far more restrictive than those in the other 27 states that allow hearsay testimony.

Maryland law not only limits those who can testify by professional categories, but also requires corroborative evidence and a 20-day notice for defense attorneys. The corroboration and notice requirements would not be changed.

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