Girl's death spurs change in policies Balto. Co. officials hope to prevent cases like Rita Fisher's

'Evil' child abuse

Governments pledge better communication, easing burden on staff

November 26, 1997|By Jay Apperson and Larry Carson | Jay Apperson and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

The starvation death last summer of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher has prompted officials at two levels of government to revamp their policies in hopes of better identifying and preventing what they call premeditated, "evil" child abuse.

Besides pledging to bolster the staff at Baltimore County's overburdened Department of Social Services, state and county officials yesterday said they would set policies to establish better communication between social workers and doctors, teachers, police officers and others in the community.

The goal, officials said, is to provide social workers with the clues that might suggest systematic child abuse within a household.

"There's evil behavior, and it's hard to notice," said Roger Friedman, a psychologist and social worker who reviewed a state government study of the Fisher case. "It is a paradox. The families that are the most dangerous are the most difficult to identify. They're wonderful at disguising the viciousness."

In July, the state medical examiner ruled the Pikesville girl's death June 25 a homicide and said she had starved to death. The girl's mother, an older sister and the sister's live-in boyfriend are charged with first-degree murder.

Yesterday, a Baltimore County judge agreed to postpone to April 8 the trial for all three defendants -- the mother, Mary E. Fisher- Utley; Rose Mary Fisher; and Frank E. Scarpola Jr. -- to give defense attorneys more time to prepare their cases.

At her death, the girl had several cracked ribs and weighed 47 pounds. During the last week of her life, she was given no food and allowed only one cup of water a day, according to court records. Her body showed additional signs of physical abuse, including marks indicating that her wrists and ankles had been bound, according to the court records.

Two-year investigation

For much of the last two years of Rita's life, social workers had been investigating her home because of reports of abuse.

The girl's death prompted reviews by the state Department of Human Resources, the Baltimore County executive's office and the county Board of Social Services. None of the reviews found evidence that the county's social services department violated the law or its policies.

The county executive's office also studied 39 individual child abuse cases and searched for ways to improve the handling of child abuse complaints. The office yesterday issued a report calling for:

Physical abuse cases to be investigated at the county's Child Advocacy Center in Towson, where the resources of police, health and social services are combined to investigate child sexual abuse cases. Arrests for child sexual abuse are up 73 percent and confessions up 30 percent since the program started in 1989, the county's report says.

Better communication between county police, health department nurses, schoolteachers and social services workers. County police have designated one detective countywide to be the focal point for serious child abuse investigations, officials said. School officials are considering designating one person per school to be a clearinghouse for information about any abuse of children in that school.

Better training of teachers in assessing and reporting suspected child abuse.

More social workers to cut caseloads.

In the months after Rita's death, county social services officials reported a 37 percent increase in the number of child abuse reports to the department.

That extra workload has meant social workers have long hours, paperwork on weekends and, worst of all, are "cutting corners" to keep up, said Camille B. Wheeler, county social services director.

Thirty social workers handle an average of 25 cases a month -- double the standard set by the Child Welfare League of America. County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants four vacancies filled immediately by the state, and one new supervisor and four temporary social workers to be hired to eliminate a backlog of paperwork.

Lynda Fox, deputy secretary for the state Department of Human Resources, the agency that oversees the county social services office, said yesterday that the state would comply with the county's personnel requests.

Fox said her department was in the midst of a review of its child protective services when the Fisher case, and another serious ,, abuse case in Montgomery County, spurred further review.

After reviewing the Fisher case, state officials recommended: revised policies to encourage regular, face-to-face contact with abused children; a review of acceptable caseload levels for social workers; and a uniform, statewide system for documenting and tracking new case referrals.

The screening process -- including the ability to follow up on reports that might initially seem insignificant -- is critical, said Linda Spears, a child protective services expert from the Child Welfare League of America, which also reviewed the handling of the Fisher case.

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