Haunted by girl's starvation death, officials commit to changing system County executive wants new laws, more teamwork

December 02, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like many people, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger keeps reminders on the refrigerator -- but one he and his wife see there every day is not about appointments or family milestones.

It is a news clipping about the June 25 starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher -- a homicide case that prompted a county government review of how its social services department handles child abuse cases.

"This incident did have a profound effect on me personally," Ruppersberger said last week, after issuing a report finding that the social services agency had followed the law and policy, but needs closer contacts with police, teachers and doctors, and more social workers to keep up with a sharp increase in child abuse cases.

"I'm in a position to make a difference," he said of why the county undertook its review of how social services works with other agencies in investigating cases like Rita's death.

The child's death was ruled a homicide in July. The state medical examiner said she died of starvation -- she weighed only 47 pounds at death -- and had several cracked ribs and marks indicating her limbs had been tied. Court documents say she was given only one cup of water a day during her last week of life, and no food.

Scheduled for trial in April on charges of first-degree murder are Rita's mother, Mary E. Fisher-Utley; an older sister, Rose Mary Fisher; and Frank E. Scarpola Jr., the sister's boyfriend.

Camille B. Wheeler, county social services director, described the effect the case has had on her and her department in terms similar to Ruppersberger's.

Wheeler has worried that the added work and stress from a 37 percent jump in child abuse reports from July through September are pushing her social workers too hard, forcing them to delay acting on problems that seem less significant.

"You cut corners" to cope, she said. "But when you're dealing with vulnerable children, you can't cut corners."

Ruppersberger said he was pleased that state officials, who pay for almost all county social services programs, have decided to grant his request for four temporary workers to clear case backlogs, one new permanent supervisor, and to quickly fill four vacancies.

But that hasn't removed the case from his mind.

"This is something that stayed with me," Ruppersberger said of Rita's death and his determination to assure better coordination between government agencies that deal with child abuse investigations.

"Teamwork is my theme," he said, explaining that he wants police, teachers and health care workers to cooperate without worrying about violating confidentiality laws.

"You've got to protect those who can't protect themselves," he said. "You can't just depend on one department.

"The issue of privacy can go too far," he said, noting that a staff aide, Julie M. Bean, found in reviewing 39 abuse cases that social workers were sometimes so afraid of violating confidentiality that they withheld information from police officers or teachers.

"It's important we pick our priorities. If confidentiality inhibits those social workers from talking to teachers or the police, that's wrong. I'm more interested in the child," he said, vowing to seek a change in state law or see if it can be interpreted differently.

County school officials are evaluating a plan to designate one person in each school to serve as a clearinghouse of information on child abuse cases, and a detective has been selected for the same purpose in the county Police Department.

Wheeler said the Fisher case was "special" because of the high level of deception within the girl's household. "I don't think anybody had any idea of what was happening," Wheeler said.

"We can never forget Rita Fisher," Ruppersberger said. "We need to learn from it and never forget what happened to that poor child."

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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