Call to action

January 28, 2004

WITH CITY CHILDREN continuing to die while in the care of the Department of Social Services, every effort to fix the system is welcome. Suggestions to that end fill a memo from Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, to Mayor Martin O'Malley, based on the knowledge and ideas of eight child welfare veterans.

The Department of Social Services and its parent, the state Department of Human Resources, also are laboring to rework the system, fraught with deadly, gaping holes.

The fixes can't come too soon.

Agency caretakers failed 2-month-old David Carr by returning him to his mother, who had already pleaded guilty to beating his sibling. Little David was beaten to death.

DSS and the city's Circuit Court didn't see coming the death of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes, partly because they didn't consider mental state when awarding Ciara's guardianship to a family friend disabled by severe psychological problems. Ciara was starved, beaten and locked away in a room until she died; her guardian is charged in the killing.

And a letter from his foster mother describing his great health and mental turnaround, and pleading for him to stay with her, didn't sway the decision-makers in the case of 5-year-old Travon Morris, who was returned to his troubled mother. She forced Travon into a tub of scalding water.

Their deaths, described by Sun reporters Allison Klein and Tom Pelton over the past year, are just three of some eight a year on average, according to the state's attorney's office. Even one is too many.

The state's attorney's office prosecutes another 50 to 60 cases of suspected severe child abuse a year, many involving repeat offenders who have earlier cases at DSS.

Dr. Beilenson's suggestions weren't officially shared with DSS, and no one from that agency was part of the subcommittee of the city's Child Fatality Review Committee. That's unfortunate, because a DSS worker could have informed the subcommittee about changes already being considered, including a possible round-the-clock schedule for social workers. Collaboration would better serve the children.

Still, the memo makes solid suggestions. For example, social workers and judges should not put kids back in a home where there is a clear danger of repeat abuse. If parents are required to attend counseling or other treatment in order to have their children returned to their care, they should risk losing those children if they stop the treatment. Potential guardians should pass the same rigorous scrutiny as foster care parents.

These are holes in the safety net for endangered children, and they should be plugged - no matter who points them out.

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