Better procedure urged in child-abuse inquiries Boy's death prompts Worcester grand jury to seek state action

July 25, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

In a strongly worded report, a Worcester County special grand jury is calling on the state to change the way it handles child-abuse cases to help prevent tragedies like the beating death of a county boy in March.

The proposals include relaxing state laws that impose a tight veil of secrecy over reports of suspected child abuse; hiring more child protective workers and training them better; and enacting a law that would impose criminal penalties for failure to report suspected child abuse.

The grand jury report was prompted by the case of 8-year-old Shamir Hudson, whose bloody, beaten body was discovered in a mobile home outside Berlin. Police have charged his adoptive mother, Catherine Marie Hudson, in the killing. The boy died in March after multiple warnings to social workers about suspected child abuse in the home.

The death led Joel J. Todd, the state's attorney for Worcester County, to ask a special grand jury to review the way the state handles child-abuse complaints.

Todd said he could not discuss the grand jury report because of Hudson's trial in October on charges of second-degree murder, assault and child abuse. Hudson is being held in the Worcester County Detention Center.

Harry Bosk, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, said the boy's death prompted his agency to examine its practices and "some of the recommendations we made are similar to what's come from the grand jury."

For example, he said, the state is moving to establish "multidisciplinary teams" in each county. The teams would include social workers, police, teachers and officials from other agencies involved with a child in a suspected abuse or neglect case.

Bosk said Baltimore County and a few other jurisdictions have similar teams.

The Baltimore County Department of Social Services moved to improve its procedures to protect children after the death in June 1997 of Rita Denise Fisher, 9. The department had received reports of possible abuse of the child.

Bosk said his agency appreciates the grand jury's work and will consider its suggestions.

"I think the department feels any of the recommendations that are going to improve our ability to protect children are worth examining," Bosk said.

Repeated calls

In the Worcester County case, teachers and administrators at the local public elementary school have said they repeatedly called Worcester's Department of Social Services to report signs that Shamir and his two younger adopted siblings had been abused.

School officials lost touch with the three children after they were transferred to a Salisbury church school in November. The social services agency closed its investigation of the suspected abuse without taking action.

The state examined the case after Shamir's death and hired a consultant to do a separate assessment. Both reviews concluded that social workers followed procedures, and they did not find sufficient evidence -- despite seven investigations of the home within 18 months -- to remove the children before the boy's death.

Procedures inadequate

The grand jury's report suggests the procedures themselves are inadequate.

The report said social workers need to quickly and thoroughly interview a person who first reports suspected child abuse and go beyond the basic requirements of agency forms used to report suspected abuse to law enforcement and other authorities.

The report also says a state law aimed at protecting the anonymity of people who report suspected child abuse has "retarded investigations" because it prevents professionals such as teachers from finding out what is being done.

"It is our belief that the intention of the legislature in enacting this statute has been corrupted by a system which will not allow a social worker to have a dialogue with professionals who are reporting child abuse," the grand jury wrote.

"That it takes an order of court to allow a social worker to testify in open court or before a grand jury is clear evidence to us that the practice of confidentiality no longer exists to protect the child or a person who wants to anonymously report suspected child abuse."

Prevent threats

Bosk said confidentiality laws are intended to prevent any threat of harm to a person who reports suspected child abuse and to protect the privacy rights of the alleged victim's family members.

However, he said the secrecy statutes are not as strict as portrayed in the grand jury's report.

Bosk said his agency is looking for ways to work more closely with school systems.

"One of the thing's we've learned from this case is that there needs to be better communications between school personnel and local departments of social services," Bosk said.

Bosk said his agency is looking at the possibility of having an ombudsman at each county social service agency who would work with counterparts at police departments, schools and other agencies involved with suspected child abuse cases.

The grand jury also said the state needs to hire more child protective workers and provide better training. The report noted that three child protection workers covered Worcester County.

Bosk said Worcester County now has four child protective workers. The county has a population of abut 35,000.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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