Sister sues Balto. Co. in death of abused girl

Social workers' failure to act on reports had role in '97 starvation, suit says

$15 million sought in Fisher case

Family's torture left client scarred, lawyer says

August 29, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

One of Rita Fisher's older sisters has filed a $15 million suit against Baltimore County claiming county social workers helped cause the girl's death by failing to respond to reports of abuse in the months before she died of starvation at her mother's home in 1997.

The suit, filed by Georgia Fisher, alleges that social workers failed to detect the abuse inflicted on her and Rita. It also claims that Fisher, now 21, suffers from depression and other psychological problems because of the abuse and her memories of Rita's death at age 9.

"From the time of Rita Fisher's death until the present, Georgia Fisher has spent her life in and out of psychiatric institutions for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and suicidal ideation, stemming from the abuse she suffered," according to the suit filed this week in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Rita died June 25, 1997, after what prosecutors described as months of abuse by her mother, Mary Fisher Utley, her other sister, Rose Mary Fisher, and the sister's boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr. All three were convicted of second-degree murder and child abuse in 1998 after a two-week trial that included descriptions of abuse and torture in the third-grader's Pikesville home.

Mary Fisher Utley was sentenced to 75 years in prison, Rose Mary Fisher was sentenced to 30 years, and Scarpola was sentenced to 95 years.

The suit names as defendants the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, its former director, Camille B. Wheeler, social worker Tear Plater and another worker assigned earlier to Rita Fisher, Jerilyn Holden. The suit also names as defendants the two social workers' supervisors, Linda Levene and Judy Johnston.

Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the department, said four groups have investigated the handling of Rita Fisher's case and found that social workers took appropriate action.

Johnston, Holden and Levene declined to comment yesterday. Plater was not at work yesterday, and efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Wheeler, who was dismissed after Fisher's death, said yesterday that she couldn't comment on the Fisher case, but said that it is always difficult to determine when abuse occurs, when parents are lying and when a child should be taken from the home.

"I can tell you, in general, there's no business more difficult than child welfare investigations," said Wheeler, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Georgia Fisher, who was 15 when Rita died, was taken from their home the day after her sister was found, said her lawyer, Sharon A. Christie. Christie said social workers ignored warning signals that included more than nine reports of suspected abuse over seven months.

The day before Rita died, Christie said, her mother canceled a home visit with Plater, meeting instead at the kennel where she worked. In the meeting, Utley told Plater that she wanted to put an alarm on the refrigerator because her younger daughters were stealing food.

"They should have been removed well before Rita Fisher's death. Had they been removed when they should have been, Georgia wouldn't be suffering from the problems she's suffering from," Christie said.

Christie said her client is learning-disabled, needs a full-time caretaker and remains in the care of the county Department of Social Services. "She's a very sweet girl who has just lived through hell," she said.

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