Two months before Travon Morris' first birthday in 1998, the toddler was taken from his abusive mother by the State of Maryland because social service workers feared he might die.
Over the next four years, Travon was given back to his mother, Sheila Avery, and taken away several times. In January, after the boy was once again entrusted to her care, Avery killed him with scalding bath water.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Sept. 7 Perspective section about child guardianship incorrectly reported the place where Denise Johnson made remarks about the criminal case of Sheila Avery. Johnson made the remarks as she stood outside a courtroom in Baltimore Circuit Court.
About a dozen children a year die in Baltimore the way Travon Morris did: while in the custody of abusive biological parents.
Avery was sentenced to 20 years in prison last month in Baltimore Circuit Court, in a case that underscores the constant tug of war between social service agencies and abusive parents.
Child advocates say Travon's situation was not rare. It is part of an alarming trend in the juvenile welfare system that makes it increasingly difficult to permanently take a child away from a parent, even if the child's life is in danger.
"The child welfare system seems more concerned with giving parents every opportunity than ensuring children are safe," says Susan Leviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law. "This has been a concern for a while and the problem is only getting worse."
Avery, a 24-year-old mother of five who gave birth to her youngest child in July, regained custody of Travon after she completed three state-ordered parenting classes. Travon was returned to Avery over the objection of Travon's foster mother, who wanted to keep the child.
Officials at the Department of Human Resources -- the agency that oversees child welfare in the state -- say their policy is to keep a child in the parents' home as long as possible for the child's benefit.
Permanent removal would generally happen only if there is a threat to the child's safety, says A. Thomas Grazio, director of the department's Office of Family and Children Services.
"If you think of it in terms of a child's perspective, nothing could be worse than taking you from your home and telling you you're never going back," Grazio says. "But if you cannot bring them back safely, you should move them to another home."
Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, chairs the city's Child Fatality Review Board, a group that meets twice a month to review the circumstances surrounding children who are killed in the city. He says one recurring theme exists: Children are taken away from abusive parents by the state, then returned, only to be killed.
"There is an almost driving force that's pushing a child back with the biological parents at almost any cost, despite repeated history of repeated abuse," Beilenson says. "When a biological parent shows they are not capable of being responsible, it does not make sense to put that child back in a dangerous environment."
Travon was one of several children who have died in the past year in abusive homes that had at one time been monitored by the Baltimore Department of Social Services. Beilenson estimates that about 12 such children die each year in the city.
One glaring example of that is Ciara Jobes, the 15-year-old girl who was starved and beaten to death last year.
The teen-ager's death in December generated national attention. City and state politicians demanded to know why several city and state agencies involved in the case were unable to protect her. They've had little success finding out so far.
Police say Ciara was beaten, denied food and locked in an unfurnished and unheated room for months, forcing her to use a hole in the wall as a toilet.
Beilenson, who reviewed Ciara's case at the Child Fatality Review Board, says there was "a blatant breakdown in the system." He also says many other extreme child abuse cases do not come across his desk because the child is still alive.
"We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," Beilenson says.
The idea that parents have rights to their children, even if they have little or no contact with them, was established in 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the landmark case of Stanley vs. Illinois, the court found that when a mother dies, the state could not take custody of her children from the father, even if the father had not been living with them.
"The custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents. ... The integrity of the family unit has found protection in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment," the court found.
However, if a court finds a parent is abusive, it may take custody temporarily, or permanently if the court finds the abuse is egregious. The Maryland statute spells out forms of egregious abuse: "torture, chronic sex abuse or chronic and life-threatening neglect."