Improved safeguards for children proposed

Officials want agencies to communicate better

May 25, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

In the aftermath of the beating deaths of month-old twins, Maryland's top child welfare official and Baltimore's chief prosecutor announced yesterday several proposals they say are aimed at better protecting the city's vulnerable children.

Secretary of Human Resources Christopher J. McCabe and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy conceded that the ideas emerging from yesterday's private courthouse meeting are in the formative stage and lack sources of funding or specific deadlines for putting them in place.

Nevertheless, Jessamy and McCabe said, they are focused on ways to "improve communication" among child-oriented agencies.

The ideas announced by Jessamy and McCabe include stationing a social-services worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital, improving communication with parole and probation agents, and forming an abuse prevention work group with city and state agency department heads.

Floyd Blair, interim director of the city Department of Social Services, also attended the meeting.

Barbara A. Babb, director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Jessamy and McCabe "really missed the mark" with their announcement.

"These measures would be more meaningful if they did more than putting figureheads in place to pacify people," Babb said. "A task force is great, but what do we do in the meantime?"

Yesterday's ideas were announced after officials focused on a major communication gap that might have contributed to the case of the infant girls who were killed May 11 in the basement of a vacant Northeast Baltimore rowhouse.

Sierra Swann, the teenage mother of the twins, was known to social services as a foster care runaway from whom a previous child had been taken away because of abuse and neglect.

She was allowed to leave the hospital with her newborn girls, Emonney and Emunnea Broadway even after a hospital social worker called the state to inquire about Swann. Swann and her boyfriend, Nathaniel Broadway, are charged with murder in the deaths of the twins.

"The recent events in Baltimore point out the need for partners in child welfare to work together," said McCabe. "If all sides are not communicating, something very horrible can happen as was shown this past week."

McCabe and Jessamy spoke about trying to assemble a work group, which they called the "child protective leadership team," to talk about child welfare policy. They would not say who would be on the team, when it would meet or what its goals would be.

When McCabe, Maryland's top child welfare official, was pressed for details about the ideas he announced, he said, "We are in a conceptual stage."

The second idea he and Jessamy announced is "looking at exploring" funding to station a child care worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Emergency Room, where many suspected child-abuse cases are sent.

For that to be effective, Babb said, social services needs to post a worker in each area hospital, not just Hopkins.

"Hopkins is not the only hospital that takes victims of child abuse," Babb said. "People abuse their children and take them to other hospital emergency rooms."

As for the parole and probation agents, McCabe and Jessamy spoke of their recent discovery that some of those agents are dedicated to monitoring accused and paroled child abusers. A call to the state's Division of Parole and Probation revealed that such agents have been in place for four years.

Jessamy said she wants to forge communication with those workers. "We also know there is now an assigned parole and probation agent for individuals who are on parole and probation and charged with child abuse," Jessamy said. "We want to do more with those agents. We want to draw them in to join the leadership team."

Jessamy's spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, said Jessamy's not knowing about the agents earlier illustrates the need for better communication.

"This shows how people at the top aren't speaking," she said.

Four months ago, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson offered recommendations to McCabe that he said would better protect children from parents with documented histories of abuse.

The plan included stationing social-services workers at Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Systems.

"We are not pointing fingers. We honestly want to save children's lives," Beilenson said yesterday. "If they think our ideas are stupid, let us know."

The health commissioner said he has seen two patterns in child-abuse deaths that he is trying to address. One is children who are inappropriately placed back with abusive families. The other is when children are permanently removed but an abusive mother becomes pregnant and kills her new baby.

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