Frank E. Scarpola Jr., the older sister's boyfriend who assumed control of the household, gave authorities conflicting stories about Rita's January 1997 injuries.
"Did bells go off to you?" Assistant State's Attorney James O'C. Gentry Jr. asked Plater.
"Yes, it was a question mark," she answered.
She said she had never completely reviewed the agency's extensive file on the family. That file, compiled over nearly a decade, documented abuse of Rita and her siblings by Mary Utley's husband, Howard Utley, who served a prison term for child abuse.
Plater also knew that family members had reneged on promises to attend parenting classes.
A week before Rita's death, Mary Utley canceled a scheduled visit and instead met with Plater outside the home. During that meeting, she described a plan to equip the refrigerator with an alarm to prevent her daughters from stealing food.
Still, Plater took no immediate action, agreeing to visit the home later.
Gradet, the social services director, said in an interview this week that she was "shocked beyond belief" to read newspaper accounts in which Plater testified that her "purpose" was not to protect Rita.
That, Gradet said, raised the question of whether workers assigned to follow up with families after an initial abuse investigation view their duties too narrowly.
"[Plater's statement] has triggered our need to look very closely at that line we're walking, to make sure that when we are working with these families we are keeping our antennae up," Gradet said.
An extensive review by state and county officials of the first Baltimore County child abuse death case in 15 years concluded that the Social Services Department did not violate the law or its policies.
But the Fisher case has prompted several changes.
A new, computerized system has been established to track calls -- like those from a neighbor -- that when considered alone might seem insignificant but might be part of a pattern.
Callers whose tips do not prompt an investigation will receive a letter asking them to call again with any other suspicions.
Social workers -- historically cautious about divulging confidential material -- are receiving training about new laws that broaden what information they can share with teachers, doctors and others.
The uproar over Rita's death also helped prompt state officials to provide money to reduce social workers' caseloads in Baltimore County and throughout the state, although the jobs have been difficult to fill. Recently enacted legislation, increasing salaries for social workers, should make it easier to hire workers for two new full-time permanent jobs, Gradet said.
Revised state guidelines released this week require social workers to meet individually with all children in their care at least once a week during the first month they work with a family and at least every other week after that.
The Baltimore County school system has begun training teachers and others to more quickly recognize signs of abuse and is considering a plan to assign one person per school to be a liaison with the county's Department of Social Services.
Next month, the county Police Department, the State's Attorney's Office and the Department of Social Services will expand the Child Advocacy Center to better coordinate investigations of not only sexual abuse but physical abuse as well.
But even with the changes brought about by Rita Fisher's death, no system is fail-proof, says Camille B. Wheeler, the former director of the Baltimore County social services, who was ousted several months after Rita's death.
"It really is inexcusable for a child to die from abuse," she said.
"I still think we're not going to save every child. No child welfare system in the world prevents every child from dying."
Pub Date: 4/30/98