Arundel child abuse cases climb

August 08, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Child abuse and neglect cases soared to record numbers in Anne Arundel County in the first five months of this year, straining child protective services almost to the breaking point and leading to stress-related illnesses among social workers.

Social workers say the complaints dropped off some in June and July, but they don't expect the reprieve to last. Complaints of suspected child abuse and neglect typically decrease in the summer while school is out because a large number come from teachers and guidance counselors, said Pamela Smelser, supervisor of Child Protective Services (CPS) in the Glen Burnie office of the county Department of Social Services (DSS).

In September, workers expect to face the same backbreaking numbers they saw in March, April and May, said Ms. Smelser, who over sees the initial screening of cases and investigation by eight social workers.

"This is the worst year we've ever seen," Ms. Smelser said. "The staff has been under enormous stress, and they've had a lot of illness. We're talking gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, sinusitis -- all of which have been exacerbated by stress."

Typically, Ms. Smelser says, CPS workers in the county handle about 200 investigations a month. So far this year, they have investigated more than 200 cases in five out of seven months. In May, the busiest month, workers conducted almost 270 investigations.

Protective services workers generally take on 10 to 12 new cases a month, but this year they have been adding 15 to 16 cases to their workload each month.

"When it starts getting that high, we start to worry. We've gotto push it," Ms. Smelser said.

The increase also effected the county Police Department, where the caseload carried by the seven detectives in the child abuse unit had doubled by June, said Sgt. Robert G. Tice, the unit supervisor.

"My detectives were carrying 14 or 15 cases at a time. Six or seven is what I'd like it to be," he said. "DSS is just swamped in cases."

Ms. Smelser said so far her workers have been starting investigations within the mandated time -- 24 hours for suspected abuse cases and five days for neglect. But with the growing load, it has become increasingly tough to stay on top of paperwork and close cases within the state's required 60 days, she said.

"With this much work to do, you're bound to go out of compliance sometimes," she said.

Social workers and police cite a variety of factors that contribute to the growing caseload, including escalating drug and alcohol abuse, continuing economic pressures and better reporting from the community.

Vicki Young, program manager for the state's Child Protective Services, said the number of child abuse investigations statewide has been climbing for a number of years. But several jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, have seen particularly significant increases during the first half of 1993.

She attributed the increases to a variety of problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and "increasing violence across the board in our society."

Recent surges in some counties, she said, likely are the result of support services being stretched to their limit because of budget cuts, reduced staff and increasing numbers of clients.

"The numbers reflect the seriousness of some of the family and community problems we're facing. And communities can't deal well with these problems if they don't have the money," Ms. Young said.

"In some areas, the resources people have had to deal with these problems are just wearing thin. Agencies that would have provided support, like drug and rehabilitation centers or health care organizations, have lost some resources."

Even extended family systems are wearing down, she said, explaining that family members who might have helped dysfunctional relatives cope may not be able to do as much because they are facing their own problems.

"This is a kind of long siege," Ms. Young said. She expects the numbers will continue to climb until the economy revives sufficiently to decrease unemployment and enable governments to spend more on agencies and organizations that provide support for families.

Sergeant Tice said many of the families his unit deals with have been troubled for years, and he said he believes many of the abuse cases stem from the breakdown of the family and a lack of coping skills.

"My theory is that it's society abandoning the idea of family," he said. "With the increase in single-parent homes, there's more stress. And people don't know how to handle it. They've never been taught the internal controls to deal with day-to-day stress."

But Ms. Smelser said social problems, economic pressure and family stress alone don't account for the escalating numbers.

"I think there's always been dysfunctional families, bad parenting, drug and alcohol abuse and unemployment," she said. "I think the biggest factor is the increased awareness. I think people are finally realizing who we are and what we do. I think they know to call us."

Ms. Young agreed that public awareness could be playing a part.

"There have been several cases that have been highly publicized, and just having those cases in the news may account for some increased reporting," she said.

To help workers cope with the increases, four new social workers -- three in the Glen Burnie office and one in the Annapolis office -- will be added to the CPS staff by September, said Ms. Smelser.

The extra staff will help, she said, but if case numbers continue to increase, the workers still will have to scramble to keep up.

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