Reports support social workers Inquiries were result of Berlin boy's death

May 15, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

State officials said yesterday that Worcester social workers acted properly in their investigations of as many as two dozen reports of suspected child abuse in the home where an 8-year-old boy was found beaten to death in March.

The bloody body of Shamir Hudson was discovered in a mobile home outside Berlin -- and police have charged his adoptive mother, Catherine Marie Hudson, with killing him.

Teachers and administrators at the local elementary school had repeatedly called Worcester's Department of Social Services to report signs that Shamir and his two younger, adopted siblings had been abused. But they lost track of the three children -- and the department closed the case -- when they were transferred to a Salisbury church school in November.

After Shamir's death, the state examined the case and hired a consultant from the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a separate assessment. Both reviews concluded that social workers followed procedures properly and did not find enough evidence -- despite seven investigations of the home within 18 months -- to remove the children before the death.

"Frankly, I would have felt better if we had found somebody to blame," said Fran Gutterman, the consultant. "I believe the [social workers] did a credible job. They did what they were supposed to do."

Some children's advocates, however, said the findings would only heighten public skepticism over whether Maryland has an adequate system to protect its children from abuse. Just weeks ago, the horrifying, graphic trial that depicted the starvation death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher in Baltimore County led to widespread outrage.

"The existing system is not open, and so it is not conducive to public confidence because to most people, it just makes sense maybe after the third or fourth call, that something is wrong," said Sally Millemann, a child welfare specialist with the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth. "What do you need to substantiate it? Maybe that threshold is too high."

After repeated calls from Buckingham Elementary School, Worcester social service officials appointed an in-home aide to help Hudson with the three children she had adopted after caring for them as a foster mother. They also met with school officials on one occasion.

Social workers investigated the household seven times but ruled out abuse in two of the three reviews specifically involving Shamir. The third time, they assumed someone other than the mother had been at fault, based on interviews with her and the children.

Nonetheless, state officials said the boy's death would lead to reforms in Worcester and social service agencies across Maryland. Stephen K. Berry, manager of child protective services for the state Department of Human Resources, outlined seven steps to be taken in an attempt to strengthen the system of investigating suspected abuse.

Social workers do not have to file an assessment report on a home if they conclude a report of child abuse is unsubstantiated. That's because the reports are expunged after 120 days under a state law designed to protect parents from being falsely accused. In Shamir's case, social workers only discussed their findings with superiors.

The state has decided to require a written risk assessment in every case, even if no evidence of abuse exists. By doing the report, social workers might see more "red flags," Berry said, though the report still will be expunged.

Worcester's department will get another child protection supervisor. It now has just one supervising 12 staffers. Other measures include encouraging social workers to work more closely with the police and local schools.

Social workers, historically cautious about divulging confidential material, are receiving training about new laws that broaden what information they can share. The state wants local agencies to put together "multidisciplinary teams" of doctors, police officers, teachers and psychologists to review more cases.

Gutterman said some child abuse cases are extremely difficult to spot, especially when the parents appear devoted to the children. That was the case with Hudson, whose arrest has shaken many in her small, Eastern Shore town because she had been a foster parent before adopting the three children.

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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