Questions about Rita Social services: Death of girl has spurred changes, but confidentially impedes reform.

December 10, 1997

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, after 9-year-old Rita Fisher died of starvation, we asked whether this child's death might have been prevented. Whenever a child under government protective supervision dies as Rita did, one has to ask how social workers could not have noticed and intervened.

We still do not know -- which does not necessarily mean that the Baltimore County Department of Social Services does not have a justifiable answer. DSS Director Camille Wheeler says there are valid reasons why caseworkers were not aware of the depths of the abuse, and would like to share them with the public. "There's a need for us to speak more openly about our work," she notes. "How can people have confidence in us if we don't?"

But confidentiality laws hamstring social services workers. This makes sense nearly all of the time, but not when a child has died and family members been charged with the crime.

Several welcome reforms have grown out of this tragedy, including legislation proposed by the Ruppersberger administration to allow officials to explain some details of cases in which a child has been killed or suffered serious abuse.

In the Fisher case, reviews by the county and state found no negligence on the part of caseworkers (who had not lost a child under their supervision since 1982).

This is at once encouraging and discouraging. It's terribly upsetting to think that even when laws and policies are followed some children will suffer. Evil, unfortunately, has always found ways to conceal itself, so there will be innocents we cannot save. Perhaps Rita was one.

But children do fall through the cracks because of the system's inadequacies. Caseworker staffing levels have not changed since 1989, while reports of abuse have risen. The average child welfare worker in Baltimore County carries 25 cases; the Child Welfare League of America recommends no more than 18. This means not enough time for observing families face to face, the kind of intimate contact necessary for detection of subtle signs of trouble.

Baltimore County's response has been admirable. Mr. Ruppersberger has successfully sought more child protection staff, and he wants police, teachers and health care officials to have an effective, formal mechanism for sharing information about suspect children without fear of violating confidentiality laws.

We hope leaders in other jurisdictions will not wait until the unthinkable happens before following this example.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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