Police admit errors in case

Mother of 3 is accused of abuse, endangerment

Prosecutors call evidence weak

Exchange renews debate over charging process

January 31, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors say that city police botched an investigation and offered weak evidence to support child-abuse charges against a mother arrested this week for allegedly leaving her three children home alone for days.

After being criticized by the attorney's office, police officials yesterday confirmed making mistakes in the investigation and said they have launched a follow-up inquiry to justify the charges.

Neither prosecutors nor police, however, went so far as to say that charges would be dropped against 22-year-old Tiffany Simmons of the 900 block of Gilmor Street in West Baltimore.

"The case from the get-go is wrong, their own protocol was not followed and that is going to affect the prosecution in this case," said Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney office. "It's weak, but it's not undoable."

Burns said the follow-up investigation being conducted by child-abuse detectives will be key in determining whether Simmons can be successfully prosecuted or if other, less severe charges are warranted.

The state's attorney's office and police have been feuding for a year over who should have authority in bringing criminal charges. The Police Department determines who is to be charged and doesn't plan for that to change. But, claiming they have been deluged with a flood of poorly investigated cases, the state's attorney has argued for taking over the duty.

Simmons' attorney, Warren Brown, said yesterday that he isn't surprised about prosecutors' hesitation over the charges - some of which are felonies.

"Child abuse is a stretch, and there is no factual support, really, for this unattended-child charge," Brown said.

Simmons was arrested Tuesday, a day after police found her three children - ages 6, 5, and 4 - alone in rowhouse with no heat or electricity. Frozen pipes clogged running water to the home. The children were dirty, one had frostbite and two had ringworm.

Police say the children may have been home alone for at least three days. Simmons' attorney disputes the charges and says the mother never left her children alone and slept with them in a single bed under blankets each night she is accused of being absent.

The Police Department's chief spokeswoman, Ragina C. Averella, said the officer who discovered Simmons' children Monday made one significant mistake: The child abuse unit was never contacted, as required by the department's general orders.

Also, the general orders call for child abuse victims to be taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment, where staffers are trained to help police note evidence. The children instead were taken by ambulance to University Medical Center, the nearest medical facility, Averella said.

"We recognize this to be a training issue, and police officials are reviewing the case and how it was handled initially," Averella said.

Averella said neither crime scene photos nor pictures of the children were taken, which prosecutors say is crucial to prosecuting the case. But Averella said that despite the mistakes, the case can still go forward.

"Although there appears to be some procedural violations, that should not negate the officer's ability to testify to what he observed that day," said Averella, adding that the officer took meticulous notes.

Meanwhile, Simmons' attorney, Brown, is seeking a bail review today in Circuit Court for his client, who is in city jail pending a $50,000 bail set Wednesday in district court. Brown is taking the matter to a different court because he hopes to have Simmons released on her own recognizance.

Brown said that Simmons had been gone just 20 minutes Monday before police arrived. She had planned to meet a relative who was to take her to look for another place to live, Brown said.

Simmons, a high school dropout, had left the children with her mother, who apparently left the children unattended, Brown said. Simmons doesn't know her father.

Simmons has been described by a social worker and her children's school principal as a desperate but caring mother who is unable to pay her housing bills or keep a job, largely because she cannot find affordable day care.

Brown said many people have offered to give Simmons money that she could use for bail or for finding another place to live. Her children are now staying with a relative.

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