Child abuse death rate up in state

Findings show Md. missing warning signs, group says

50% rise in 1998-1999

Numbers reflect better reporting, officials say

January 06, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Thirty-six Maryland children died between 1998 and 1999 because of abuse or neglect, according to state estimates -- a sharp increase that has led advocates to question the state's ability to remove children from dangerous situations before they turn deadly.

That death toll, from July 1998 to July 1999, was 50 percent higher than the 24 children who died from abuse or neglect during the same period in 1997-1998.

Since 1994, the percentage of cases in which child welfare workers found abuse or neglect has been on the decline, while the number of investigations increased.

A report on the child welfare system released this week by Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit organization, says that, taken together, those trends suggest that Maryland investigators are missing danger signs for children.

"When you see what's going on with the investigation rate and the indication rate, you see the signs of a system that can't handle the reports that are coming in," said Matthew Joseph, the organization's director of public policy.

State officials say their system is getting better -- fueled by legislative reforms prompted by two high-profile deaths of children whose abuse had been reported to investigators.

They say it is likely the number of deaths is higher not because more children are dying, but because they have gotten better at finding out when a death results from abuse or neglect. They include in the statistics deaths where neglect seems to be only a contributing factor -- such as a case in which a child died in a bicycle accident after being left alone at home.

Tom Grazio, director of the Office of Family and Children's Services for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said that in 21 of the cases, neither the children nor their families had been involved with local social service agencies beforehand. In five cases, the child who died had been the subject of a previous report of abuse or neglect. In 10 others, someone in the family had been involved with social services before.

Grazio said that's a good record, considering that local departments investigated more than 30,000 complaints of abuse and neglect last year.

"I don't think we're ever going to see prior history [with the system] go down to zero," Grazio said. "But we do want to see the number of cases get smaller."

State officials would not release names of the children or details about the deaths included in their count, noting confidentiality rules.

But public records show they include children such as Marteece Jenkins, 15 months, who died in May after falling out a third-story window in West Baltimore after being left home with his 2-year-old sister; and Stacy Singer, 2 1/2, of Gaithersburg, whose licensed day care provider left him in a blazing hot van in June, even as she was under investigation for leaving other children unsupervised.

The number of investigations conducted by state workers rose from 28,463 in 1994 to 31,220 last year. The number in which workers ruled that abuse or neglect was "indicated" fell, from 34 percent of the investigated cases in 1994 to 26 percent last year. The national average was 34 percent in the latest report of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which used 1997 statistics.

The number of investigations in which allegations of abuse or neglect were upheld by workers varied widely, from 4 percent in Charles County to 35.7 percent in Prince George's County.

And the state investigated only about 50 percent of reports alleging abuse or neglect -- also a low number, Joseph said. Because the state keeps no records on those reports -- and is required by law to purge records of cases that are ruled out or for which there is insufficient evidence -- the performance of workers can't be adequately monitored, he said.

Maryland's child protective system received intense scrutiny after the deaths of Rita Fisher, a 9-year-old Baltimore County girl who starved to death in 1997, and 8-year-old Shamir Hudson, who was found beaten in his home on the Eastern Shore in 1998.

In both cases, social workers had repeated reports of abuse -- but never removed the children from their homes. And in both cases, later reviews concluded that social workers had not violated laws or policies.

Some changes have been made, however. The cases prompted state legislators to pass a law requiring lower caseloads for workers, better training, higher pay and an end to the use of contractual employees to investigate abuse.

Caseload reduction is just starting, however, and only in three pilot locations -- northwest Baltimore and Allegany and Caroline counties, which have doubled the number of workers. Advocates are hoping Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget, due shortly, will include millions of dollars for more workers around the state.

Another law established a state child abuse council, a review team to look at all child fatalities, and an expanded role for Maryland Citizens' Review Board, which examines long-term foster care cases. Grazio said those panels, which are just forming, should answer many of the questions raised by the state's data.

"It's just not all going to happen at once," said Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the Maryland Citizens' Review Board for Children. "I think there are long-range issues that we need to address."

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