Twin tragedy

May 19, 2004

WHEN 17-year-old Sierra Swann gave birth to twin girls in April, there were ample signs of a mother in trouble, including the fact that her 2-year-old daughter had been placed in foster care because of abuse and neglect. And yet Ms. Swann left Johns Hopkins Hospital with her new babies and a referral to a city health program. Now, a month later, the twins are dead, Ms. Swann and the infants' father, Nathaniel Broadway, are charged in their murders and officials are trying to account for their actions.

The children of Maryland deserve more than explanations. In January, a city panel of child welfare advocates issued a series of recommendations to improve services to abused and neglected children. The report received no serious attention; state officials blithely say they were working on their own plan. And what do they have to show for it?

Maryland children die of abuse at a rate greater than the national average, according to recently released federal data. The statistics by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as reported in The Sun, show that 2.4 out of 100,000 children in Maryland are killed by a parent or guardian annually. The national average is 1.98 per 100,000. That data should alarm Christopher J. McCabe, the state human resources secretary, and every local social service agency head in the state. It should provoke an urgency within their agencies to find ways to prevent such abuse.

But who can convince the public that these matters are of great concern?

The system in place to protect children at risk of abuse - which is a mosaic of professionals and agencies - certainly fell short in the case of Sierra Swann's twins. A hospital social worker did check on Ms. Swann's history with the city child protective services office. The information the social worker received - that Ms. Swann didn't have an open case with the agency - was accurate. But neither the question nor the answer addressed fully the issue: Was Ms. Swann, a teen-age runaway living in an abandoned house whose first child had been placed in foster care, prepared to care for two infants?

The Hopkins social worker didn't have all that information; the teen-ager lied about where she was living with Mr. Broadway. But the fact that her daughter had been removed from her custody because of neglect should have triggered a wider inquiry. If that had occurred, the hospital would have learned that the mother herself was a runaway from a foster home.

That a parent who has abused once would abuse again is not news to those in this field. It's the reason why a city child welfare committee recommended that state officials keep track of a parent who has abused in the past. That was but one in a series of recommendations that only now is prompting a response by the state.

There should be a way that a closed state case of child abuse or neglect - especially one in which a child has been removed - can be flagged to alert others of past problems with a parent or family.

The tragedy of Emmoney and Emunnea Broadway is not only that these infant girls were beaten to death, but that their deaths might have been prevented.

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