Report on abuse got no response

Beilenson says plan he sent to state in Jan. would help in cases

May 19, 2004|By Tom Pelton and Allison Klein | Tom Pelton and Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The latest case of fatal child abuse in Baltimore is raising another round of questions about how the system attempts to protect children from their abusive parents.

One-month-old twins died last week, after their 17-year-old mother - whose first child had been taken away because of abuse - had been allowed to leave Johns Hopkins Hospital weeks earlier with the girls despite an effort by a concerned hospital social worker to find information about her past.

The call to Child Protective Services apparently failed to produce information about either the prior case of abuse or the outstanding warrant for the young mother for running away from her foster home. A month later, the teen-ager and her boyfriend were charged with murder for allegedly breaking the twins' skulls and ribs.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services conceded yesterday that the agency could have handled the case better, and said that officials are discussing ways to improve their computer system.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said yesterday that recommendations he offered more than four months ago to better protect children from parents with documented histories of abuse have been ignored by the Social Services Department and the state agency that runs it.

"If these recommendations had been put in place - in particular, following through with monitoring women and men who have previous abuse histories - I think they would absolutely prevent a significant number of child abuse cases," Beilenson said. "But I can't even get a response from them."

The social services spokeswoman, Sue Fitzsimmons, said the agency had not responded to Beilenson because the copy of his report that they received was stamped "Draft" and was unsigned, suggesting it was not an official document.

State lawmakers said yesterday that they were appalled by the beating deaths of Emonney and Emunnea Broadway, whose bodies were found May 11 in an abandoned Northeast Baltimore basement with no toilet or electricity.

Beilenson's Jan. 21 report, which was compiled by a panel of experts including Dr. Allen Walker of Johns Hopkins Hospital, listed 18 recommendations. One was: "Design measures to protect future children of a parent who has been convicted of abusing previous children."

Other recommendations were to station child abuse caseworkers in hospitals 24 hours a day, scrutinize the mental health history of foster parents and guardians, improve the computer technology at the Department of Social Services, and end the department's policy of secrecy after the death of a child.

At the time of the report's release in January, Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor "would welcome the suggestions, and they will certainly be reviewed at the departmental level, by the Department of Human Resources."

After Beilenson heard no response for three months, Mayor Martin O'Malley wrote a follow-up letter May 3 to Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, which runs the city's social services agency. O'Malley asked if Beilenson's report had been ignored, saying: "I am anxious to hear your administrative team's reaction to these ideas."

Two weeks later, the department is still working on a reply to O'Malley's letter, said Fitzsimmons. "We are in the process of responding to the mayor, and part of our response will be that we never received an official, signed copy," Fitzsimmons said.

Children die of abuse in Maryland at a rate that exceeds the national average, according to federal statistics released last month. Much of the abuse is concentrated in Baltimore.

Sierra Swann, 17, and Nathaniel Broadway, 24, the parents of the most recent pair of victims, had been listed in a computer database maintained by social services.

The agency previously investigated allegations that the couple abused and neglected their first child, a 2-year-old girl, who was placed by the state in foster care Dec. 12.

The mother delivered the twins last month, and a social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital was troubled enough to call social services to inquire about Swann's history.

The social services employee who answered the phone told the hospital worker that there was no record of "active" child abuse cases concerning Swann, Fitzsimmons said.

The employee did not mention that Swann was in the system twice - once, as a missing foster child who had an outstanding warrant for running away; and a second time, for when her 2-year-old had been taken away because of abuse.

The couple was allowed to leave the hospital with the newborns, and the babies were found bludgeoned to death a month later.

Fitzsimmons acknowledged that, ideally, her agency would have prevented a foster care runaway such as Swann, who had abused a child in the past, from leaving the hospital with twin infants.

"In an ideal world, we would know, we would show up at the hospital, make sure they get medical care and then return them to a foster home," Fitzsimmons said.

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