When the tape doesn't tell all

September 25, 2002

THE VIDEO has been running virtually nonstop since last week: An Indiana woman places her 4-year-old daughter in the back of an SUV, looks to see that no one's watching, and then slaps and pummels the child for what seems an eternity.

It's horrible, if not shocking. Hard to watch, but just as hard to stop watching.

But what's the solution here? Jail the mother and send the child off to live with relatives or into foster care? Or try to repair what got broken in this relationship, and keep the familial unit intact?

All over the country, social services agencies grapple with this question as they field millions of reported child abuse cases each year. And the sad truth is there are no easy answers when it comes to remedies.

In Indiana, for example, authorities seem to be going a bit overboard. Prosecutors are gunning for jail time for Madelyne Gorman Toogood (the videotaped beater) despite her many expressions of remorse and her admission that she lost her temper.

Why tear the family apart for something that might be fixed with counseling, an anger management program and eagle-eyed monitoring of the family?

But Maryland social services authorities say it might not be so simple. They say departments like theirs are tugged constantly between the different and sometimes competing interests of protecting children and preserving families. Only on a case-by-case basis can they determine what's right.

Sometimes, children need to stay temporarily in foster care until a permanent situation can be worked out -- even if that permanent situation is a return to a parent's custody. And sometimes, parents can't be counseled out of their destructive behavior; permanent removal of the child becomes necessary for their safety.

Locally, Baltimore County authorities are still haunted by what happened to Rita Fisher, a 9-year-old who was bound, beaten, imprisoned and denied food and water before she died. Social services was involved in the family's case, but didn't take Rita from her family.

Obviously, it would be tragic if any such outcome befell Ms. Toogood's daughter. But it would also be crushingly harmful to the child if the glare of television lights and whipped-up hysteria moved authorities to break up a family that just needs help.

Indiana officials have to strike a balance between those two extremes -- and it will take more than what's on the videotape to determine exactly where that balance lies in this case.

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