Balto. Co. abuse reports rise 40% Increase in calls follows June death of 9-year-old girl

October 22, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In the wake of the highly publicized starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher, reports of child abuse and neglect have increased dramatically in Baltimore County, and social workers are straining to keep up with the workload.

The rush of cases -- up nearly 40 percent from July through September -- has triggered fears that overworked, stressed social workers will not be able to pay enough attention to cases that lack clear indications of physical danger.

"We're pretty worried about it," said Camille Wheeler, county social services director. "Frayed seams are beginning to show."

Wheeler attributed that partly to an unjustified but widespread public belief that her department could have prevented the child's death.

"People tell our workers, 'Why are you bothering me? You didn't save that child's life.' "

The clear message, she said, is that social workers and the county department are "worthless."

When Rita died in June, she weighed only 47 pounds and had several cracked ribs, bruises and marks indicating that her wrists and ankles had been bound, according to court documents.

Rita's mother, sister and sister's live-in boyfriend have been charged with murder, and are awaiting trial. Another sister, 15, is in foster care.

The girl's death -- and reports that social service workers had been investigating her home because of reports of abuse -- drew widespread media attention.

The resulting spurt in abuse and neglect reports isn't surprising, say those in the field, but it seems limited to Baltimore County.

"People are right to be upset," said Linda Spears, director of child protection for the nonprofit Child Welfare League, based in Washington. "They also get anxious, so they call more."

The county's increase peaked in August, when 262 reports were filed -- a 51 percent increase over the same month last year. September showed a 41 percent increase over September 1996.

In addition, the number of county children going to foster care more than doubled during the July-September period, jumping from 51 last year to 110 in 1997, said Judith Schagrin, assistant director for children's services.

Most other area localities, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, had no marked increase in reports after the Fisher case became public. Reports generally have been steady in Howard County, though in September the number jumped to 101 -- up from 55 in September 1996.

Montgomery County saw a 16 percent rise in reports after a highly publicized case there in May, officials said. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan responded by using county funds to pay for four new social workers for six months to lend a hand.

The danger, Spears and others say, is that overworked social workers won't have time to pay attention to cases that initially don't appear to involve physical danger. "You can't always see from the surface what is there," Spears said.

The Child Welfare League considers 12 cases per worker a proper load, but that might be high, Spears said, given that families face more serious problems today.

In Baltimore County, the average protective services worker has about 25 cases, said Mark B. Vidor, assistant director for family services. The deluge of new reports comes on top of last year's change in state law requiring more court reviews -- and more paperwork. That, Vidor said, has put a huge burden on the 30 social workers who handle abuse and neglect.

State officials estimate that Baltimore County needs 23 more social workers to carry the load, Wheeler said, but no new hires are expected. The pressures of that workload, combined with criticism from the public, takes a toll on social workers, she said.

The extra cases mean "we don't do work with the depth we would if we had a more reasonable caseload," she said. "You need to have time with families."

Skilled and dedicated workers suffer, she added, because privacy rules limit their ability to discuss cases such as Rita's.

"It's hard to hear that we killed that child," Wheeler said. "I don't think anybody could have saved that child, but we can't tell our side at all. There is another side."

Robbyn Zimmerman, 43, a child protective services worker in the county, said she gets about one new case every workday. To keep up, she and other workers arrive at work earlier, stay later and sometimes put in weekend hours.

First, she said, "You're trying to make sure everyone's safe." For less urgent cases, she can sometimes put off an interview.

Despite Zimmerman's determination to do well, the job can be draining. "It gets to you," she said.

More than 600 county children are in foster care, and the state law change that took effect in October 1996 has made the burden on social workers heavier.

Instead of one court review every 18 months, the first review must be within 10 months, and then every six months, tripling the work per case, said Assistant County Attorney Bruce Mermelstein.

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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