Child abuse reports show marked rise

Officials expect 30 percent increase from 1998 figures

Social services overloaded

Some attribute trend to better reporting, not jump in violence

March 24, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Reports of child abuse and neglect are rising in Howard County, straining the county's system for handling abuse cases.

County social services board members were told last week that child abuse reports are on track to be 30 percent higher this year than the 808 recorded in fiscal 1998, burdening workers with 30 to 40 cases each - far above the 12 to 17 cases per worker considered ideal by the Child Welfare League of America.

For the 12 months ending June 30, Howard officials expect to record 1,050 investigations, compared with 969 in the previous fiscal year.

High caseloads evoke memories of Rita Fisher, the 9-year-old Pikesville girl whose gruesome starvation death in 1997 sparked outrage and, later, action on legislation requiring higher pay and lighter caseloads for Maryland social workers.

Steve Berry, manager of in-home family services for the state Department of Human Resources, said the state is striving to implement that legislation, to lower caseloads and make more accurate assessments of abuse trends in the state.

"We're trying to bring the whole state up to Child Welfare League standards," he said.

The proposed state budget for next fiscal year calls for 106 new social work jobs statewide. But because of the recession, the budget provides only 20 percent of the money needed to hire them, said Charlie Cooper administrator of Maryland's Citizens Review Board. It likely will take another year to fill the jobs, he said.

"Across the state, because of the hiring freeze, our folks are getting more cases. There's no relief," said Flo Jones, secretary of Local 112 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents social workers statewide.

Howard was forced to leave several positions unfilled for months because of the state's budget freeze.

Officials in nearby counties have told Howard officials that they have not seen the strong recent growth in abuse cases reported in Howard.

But almost everyone dealing with the problem says poor recordkeeping makes it difficult to compare trends among counties or assess what is happening across Maryland.

"The state hasn't implemented much of a way to look at what's going on with reporting. They don't collect or retain much data," said Amy Hill, interim child welfare director for Advocates For Children and Youth, a private advocacy organization in Baltimore.

Hill said she worries that caseloads might be higher than reported because agencies sometimes do not count cases left by departing workers.

Berry acknowledged problems with the state's 1980s computer system. He is hoping for a new one next year, he said.

While Howard officials say they are carefully monitoring cases to guard children's welfare, backlogs can delay help to families.

"These are vulnerable children. Some pretty bad things can happen," said Jan Schmidt, a lobbyist with Advocates for Children and Youth.

One Howard case last year illustrates that point vividly.

When the 7-year-old Howard County girl arrived at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, she was semiconscious, her body black and blue from 81 bruises that often ran together. Although reportedly the victim of a fall from a bed, she had human bite marks and finger impressions in several places.

While the two months of abuse the girl and her two sisters suffered last year at the hands of Rusty Edson Stover, their mother's live-in boyfriend, represents an extreme case, it spotlights why it is important for caseworkers to have time to make careful investigations and repeated home visits.

In November, Stover, 22, was sentenced to a 25-year prison term in the case.

Although no one is sure why the number of abuse reports in Howard County is rising, officials say the trend might reflect a more effective system for dealing with the problem rather than an increase in abuse.

They note that Howard has a better-educated populace and say sharper attention is being paid to the problem by social services, police and school workers. Howard County has a Child Advocacy Center that pools the talents of county prosecutors, police and child welfare agencies in dealing with abuse and neglect.

"I don't believe it's more abuse occurring. I think it's increased awareness of the need to report," said Peter W. Finck, the Howard County school system's pupil personnel worker, who for a decade has trained teachers in child abuse detection.

Finck said that about two-thirds of abuse and neglect cases are reported by county schools - 648 of 964 cases between Sept. 1, 2000, and Aug. 31 last year. Neglect - children lacking clothing, medicine, food, shelter, supervision, or missing too much school - is the largest category, he said. Foreign cultural practices, such as hitting children with bamboo sticks, also are brought here by recent immigrants, officials said.

Howard County has 100 children sheltered from their families now, including seven removed last month, and the volume of calls reporting possible cases of abuse can be daunting.

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