Safety concerns ignored, social worker says

She sought state probe before fire killed infant

February 19, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore schools social worker said she implored state social services officials late last month to investigate whether the Northeast Baltimore home where a 5-month-old girl died Sunday in a fire posed a danger to its inhabitants.

Mary Troutman, who works at Glenmount Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore, said this week that her report requesting an investigation into the condition of the home where Brenda Heil lived with her three children was not taken seriously. State officials said they are investigating Troutman's allegation.

Troutman was involved with the family because she works closely with one of Heil's children.

"When I went to the home, I was very concerned about the third-floor attic apartment because it was hard to get to. I was especially worried about a fire," she said. The Heils lived in the apartment.

Troutman said she was so concerned about what would happen if a fire erupted at the Heil home that she drove back by it the next day and was relieved to see it had a fire escape.

"I literally could not rest until I had made the report," Troutman said. "I just could not see how a mother with an infant child and a child with cerebral palsy could exit if there was a fire. It has a very narrow set of steps."

Troutman said that when she initially called the city Department of Social Services' Child Protective Services unit, she met resistance.

"The intake worker gave me a lot of argument," Troutman said. "She was giving me a hard time about it. She wanted to speak to the student, which is inappropriate. I couldn't believe it. That really infuriated me. I informed her that I'd never had anyone demand that."

Troutman said the intake worker told her a report would be filed but no investigation would be conducted. She said the worker told her she had consulted with her supervisor and that the two had agreed that an investigation into Troutman's concerns was unnecessary.

Then, in a report dated Jan. 29, Heil told authorities of her "great concern for the safety of the family" and asked them to investigate conditions at the three-story frame house.

"A home visit revealed filthy and hard-to-access living quarters," the report stated. "Time 9 a.m. No sign of mother."

City Housing Authority spokesman Melvin Edwards said yesterday that housing officials hadn't received any complaints about the house and that its owner had not been assessed any code violations.

Edwards said city officials were not able to inspect the property the way they should have. "We've attempted to inspect the property, but the owner would not allow us to gain entry," he said. "Attempts were made annually."

Property records list Marion C. Porter as the property's owner. Efforts to reach Porter and Heil were unsuccessful this week.

Troutman said she wishes someone at the city Department of Social Services had taken her seriously and that she wonders whether the infant's death could have been prevented.

Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the Department of Social Services, said the matter is being investigated internally. He confirmed that Troutman had filed a report on safety issues at the Bayonne Avenue house.

"DHR policy is that child welfare workers are to respond, promptly, to all credible calls about children in danger," West said. "We don't know yet what happened in this case, so we can't say anything about what caseworkers or supervisors did or didn't do, but we expect caseworkers to be responsive, and we would not find it acceptable for anyone not to act with alacrity to a serious threat to a child."

Heil's daughter was found dead in her crib Sunday by firefighters battling a two-alarm fire at the home. It took about an hour to control the fire, said Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

He said there were two working, battery-operated smoke detectors, on the first and second floors, but that a smoke detector on the third floor, where Heil and her children lived, was plugged into the dwelling's electrical circuit and might not have had a backup battery.

Investigators haven't determined the cause of the blaze, which caused an estimated $125,000 in damage to the house and its contents, Cartwright said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.