Parents' testimony causes tide of anger against social workers

February 19, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- Emotional stories of parents who said the state Department of Human Resources trampled their rights dominated about three hours of hearings yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee.

As the hearing continued, members of the committee showed increasing impatience with the agency and anger over the treatment of parents by some social workers.

The hearings were on a set of five bills proposed by Del. Donald Elliott, R-Carroll, intended to give people accused of child abuse the rights to see their records and have hearings.

"The true issue here is not child abuse, but governmental abuse of power," said David Hodge, a Taylorsville father whose experiences prompted Mr. Elliott's two-year crusade to revise state laws.

Also testifying for the bills was Lyndi Stewart McNulty, now of Westminster, who said Harford County social services have kept her step-son in foster care based on a baby-sitter's unfounded allegation that he was abused.

Several delegates expressed sympathy to the string of about a dozen parents who painted a picture of a monster system in the Human Resources Department.

And the legislators were sometimes harsh with Human Resources staff members who began to testify later in the hearing, which lasted into the night.

Human Resources Secretary Carolyn Colvin was not at the hearing, and it was not clear whether she would testify in the future on the bills.

"I'm going to make it my mission to dismantle this organization," said an angry Del. Dana Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat.

"All the things I've heard are very moving," said Del. Louis DePazzo, a Democrat from Baltimore County. "It's sort of moving me to anger."

John and Mary Ann McMaster of Calvert County said an incomplete investigation caused the state to place their two children in foster care.

"There's a lot of pain left. The kids now look forward to Christmas as the time the state took them away from their parents," Mr. McMaster said.

He said allowing parents access to their confidential records, as one of these bills proposes, will prompt more accurate and thorough investigations.

Last September, a federal judge gave a summary judgment in favor of Mr. Hodge, who claims that Human Resources workers violated his constitutional rights.

A misdiagnosis of Mr. Hodge's infant son four years ago led Carroll social services to investigate him and his wife, Marsha, for alleged abuse.

The investigator ruled out abuse, but a coding error listed the Hodges as child molesters, court records revealed last summer, after a long battle by the Hodges to view their records.

Democrat Del. Tony Fulton of Baltimore asked Mr. Hodge how much he had spent in trying to get his records.

"It's definitely into five figures now," Mr. Hodge said.

Ronald Dorsey of Woodlawn told the committee he and his family moved out of Carroll County because of a social service worker investigating them.

The Dorsey family has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in the case.

Mr. Elliott's bills seek to:

* Allow hearings for people whose names are listed on a state data base.

* Allow people access to their confidential records. This bill is sponsored by Del. Robert Ehrlich, R-Baltimore County, and co-sponsored by Mr. Elliott.

* For cases that are easily ruled out, allow an administrator to expunge records without a hearing.

* Allow expungement after 120 days of any cases where abuse of an adult is ruled out. This provision already exists for child abuse cases that are ruled out.

* Require Human Resources to get its regulations approved by an executive-legislative committee.

Mr. Elliott said attempts by the legislature in the past to reform the laws have been neutralized by the way Human Resources interprets the law into regulations.

* Automatically expunge records of unsubstantiated abuse after five years if no more incidents are reported for that child or adult.

Currently, the law allows the records to be expunged only if the person makes a request.

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