NEARLY TWO YEARS ago, New York City's child-welfare system was shamed by the death of a raven-haired 6-year-old named Elisa Izquierdo, murdered by her drug-deranged mother after months of torture.
How could this have happened, when case workers received multiple reports of abuse? How could they not have noticed the bruises and broken bones, her regression to wearing diapers, the loss of weight?
It turned out that case workers were overburdened and under pressure to close cases, and that judges and social workers were carrying policies stressing unification of families to the extreme. Elisa's story provoked national outrage and reforms in New York, and heightened the debate over child-protection policies and practices everywhere.
Today is a good time to resume that debate in Maryland.
A 9-year-old named Rita Fisher is dead. Her mother, sister and sister's boyfriend face charges of child abuse and/or murder. Rita had been the subject of an investigation by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.
We know little about that investigation at this point because confidentiality laws allow the release of minimal information. We do know that it has been a long time, since 1982, that a child under social-services investigation died of abuse in Baltimore County.
Fran Gutterman, a consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, says the league's recent review of Maryland's child-welfare system found it basically sound, though it made recommendations for improvement.
Nonetheless, the same questions that begged an answer when Elisa Izquierdo died must be asked about Rita's murder.
Rita weighed 47 pounds when she died. She had cracked ribs, was covered with bruises, had marks on her ankles and wrists indicating they had been bound. Her guidance counselor and neighbors had noticed her condition; so did police, who responded to a complaint from Rita's school and alerted DSS when -- because Rita kept changing her story and family members offered conflicting ones -- they were unable to identify a specific suspect.
How bad must it be?
How could case workers not have seen what these other people saw? Just how bad does a home situation have to be before officials remove a child from it? We have an interest in knowing how this child fell through the cracks.
At the same time, we must understand the difficulty of the child-protection workers' job. They are asked to make judgments that may involve life or death; must interfere, unwanted, in a family's business; are caught between the desire to err conservatively on the side of the child and a legal system that -- despite growing objection to family-unification policies -- is loath to remove children from parents, even parents with a history of neglect or worse.
In Maryland, child-protective services officials handle 50,000 reports of abuse a year. It's often difficult to decide whether these reports meet the legal definition of abuse. A neighbor says she saw the parent next door swat a child, hard, with a paddle. Is that abuse, or a parent exercising old-fashioned discipline?
Case workers personally visit about 29,000 of the families reported. Most of the children they oversee are victims of neglect and poor parenting rather than the kind of obvious abuse that foreshadows mortal danger.
Especially after tragedies in which the need to remove a child seems to have been obvious, I have heard critics of the social-work industry argue that the business of protecting children is too important to leave to the judgments of case workers; that it should be left to police, who are guided by clear rules rather than subjectivity. But, as Rita's case demonstrates, the police can't act unless they can meet the high standards needed to build a criminal case.
We need a child-welfare system, but we need to make it better. Some case workers in Maryland are carrying 30 cases; the Child Welfare League recommends no more than 18. We need to goad elected leaders into providing more resources so that case workers can spend enough time with families to be able to make good judgments.
The league found a disturbing lack of consistency among the 24 jurisdictions with respect to decisions about intervention and what services should be provided. A better balance is needed between a family's right to privacy and the need for public scrutiny when a case goes horribly wrong.
Mostly, we need to encourage laws and policies that say, when in doubt as to a child's safety, act. Even then, the system will never be perfect. But the awful query, ''How could this have happened?'' will crop up less often than it does now.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 7/20/97