Proving child abuse tricky In Anne Arundel case, officials seek truth in frustrating gray area

October 13, 1998|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

The letters from his 11-year-old daughter told of random punches, beatings with a belt and the bathroom door she said her mother slammed in her face. When her mother and her boyfriend found a letter and tore it up, she mailed the pieces to her father in Los Angeles.

"She uses a belt when we don't do anything," Courtney wrote in childish cursive on floral stationery. "He punched me in my arm and mommy took his side like he was so inasent [sic] and I was liying [sic]. I can't stand living here with her."

The letters, in a case that illustrates the complications of proving child abuse, brought the father back to Severn and to District Court in Annapolis where he will try today to win custody of Courtney and her sister, Erin, 8.

The father turned over to The Sun copies of Courtney's letters and other records in the case, saying he hoped that the story will help other families in similar situations. His only stipulation was that the girls' last names not be used to protect their privacy.

Courtney's calls for help led Anne Arundel County police to issue an arrest warrant for their mother, Carmen Duran, on child abuse charges.

Duran's boyfriend, L. C. Bogard III, also has been charged with child abuse and assault.

Bogard, 35, free on $20,000 bond, said in an interview the girls "got a regular spanking under the supervision of their mother."

He said, "People have the right to do the best they can to raise their children."

Duran could not be reached for comment.

What authorities are struggling with is this: Were Courtney's letters those of a little girl dramatizing because she missed her father or a cry of help from an abused child?

Child protective services workers talk about a frustrating gray area in which they cannot help children who may be in trouble because there are no broken bones or other injuries to prove they are in imminent danger. Only in those cases with obvious abuse can a child be taken from family.

Most cases are more like Courtney's.

Of 5,020 reports of abuse filed with the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 2,860 were deemed worth investigating.

Sixty-four children were removed from their homes.

"The borderline cases where they walk the line and do barely enough to hurt the kid are the ones we worry about the most," said Dorothy Boyle, deputy director of the agency. "We often feel that we just don't have enough to go to court."

Difficult decisions

Nationally, decisions on whether to remove a child from a home are difficult, said Linda Spears, director of child protection at the Child Welfare League of America. And the "absence of an injury [is] not always indicative of the true risk to the child."

"You could have no injury and the child is at high risk," Spears said.

In Maryland, no records are kept of cases where the incident is just below the margins of the state's definition of abuse and neglect, she added. That makes proving a pattern of injury more difficult.

Courtney's parents broke up in 1994, and the girls went to live with their mother.

Duran and Bogard, who runs a resume service from their home, moved in together in April.

County social workers met Courtney and Erin in August after their father filed a complaint against Bogard.

In court records, the father alleges that Bogard assaulted and battered Erin. Erin told her father that Bogard picked her up and shoved her down on her bed, bruising her left arm.

Two days later, according to their father, a Social Services worker interviewed the girls and began investigating the allegations.

"I told her that I feel safer with my dad and not my mom," Courtney said in an interview her father allowed.

Originally, case workers said they couldn't find enough evidence to take the girls from their mother.

Then, two weeks ago, the girls said they were beaten again; this time with belts.

That led to charges being placed against Bogard and Duran.

Anne Arundel case workers are assigned 13 cases to work on at a time, two below the national average, according to Boyle.

They spend about a day completing an investigation, the deputy director said.

However, their approach differs from other agencies in the state in that they take a more comprehensive look at family dynamics early in the investigation.

Anne Arundel's model

"While the rest of the counties are focusing on did it happen and what is the risk," said Spears, "Arundel's model says: Did it happen? What else is going on in the family? And what is the risk as a result?"

She said the downside to a more far-reaching assessment process is that officials may wait longer to take a child out of the home.

However, counties that do not use this protocol have a less complete picture of the family to make a decision, Spears said.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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