Tragedy prompts policy review

Officials aim to help endangered kids


They've distributed cell phones to child abuse investigators. They've brought in medical experts to explain to lawyers and judges the often-complicated diagnoses in civil cases involving abused or neglected children. And they've set up ways for arson investigators and police officers to inform social workers of children at home during a fire or left alone in cars.

A year after two Dundalk boys died and their mother was charged with child abuse that resulted in her older son's death, Baltimore County government agencies have tried to learn from the case and tighten up the policies and procedures designed to keep children safe.

The deaths of 6-month-old Donald Lechner and 3-year-old Roy Lechner Jr., four months apart and under medically indeterminate circumstances, did not require an extensive overhaul of the child protective system, county officials said. But with a nip or tuck here and there, county officials say they hope they have removed obstacles and added safeguards to streamline agencies' work with other families.

"This was not a case where something slipped through the cracks," Mark Vidor, assistant director of the county Department of Social Services, said of the agency's interaction with the Lechner family. "The number of contacts and breadth of involvement by us and others was kind of staggering.

"Whenever a child dies, it's a terrible thing and people ask what more could have been done. This case doesn't lend itself to, `This is what went wrong. This is where we dropped the ball.' But this case has ... made it abundantly clear to us that we need to be abundantly clear in these issues."

Denise Marie Lechner, 26, was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for child abuse that resulted in Roy Jr.'s death. She told police that her son stopped breathing shortly after she had swatted his bottom, causing him to tumble down the basement stairs.

The medical examiner who conducted the toddler's autopsy listed the boy's fall, his asthma, a seizure, an untreated strep throat infection and asphyxiation due to smothering as possible causes of death. He could not determine whether Roy Jr. died from natural causes, an accident or a homicide.

Roy Jr.'s death followed more than 150 visits from Baltimore County social workers and the November 2004 death of his baby brother. The medical examiner similarly could not attribute Donald's death to natural causes, an accident or a homicide. His cause of death was listed as sudden unexplained death in infancy.

In a report delivered in December to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., the county's Child Protection Panel made nine broad recommendations, including professional education and training of DSS staff, police, judges, juvenile masters and relevant attorneys regarding "the nature of sudden unexplained death in infancy and the risks to surviving children that might arise from such situations."

That cause of death is similar to a finding of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, according to medical experts. However, a finding of sudden unexplained death in infancy generally means that medical examiners found the death to be suspicious but could not pinpoint why.

"Even though it's unexplained doesn't mean there isn't reason for concern," said Timothy W. Griffith, director of the county's social services department.

Added Vidor, "We want to make sure that people know it doesn't mean it's a benign event just because you can't explain it."

To that end, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox invited two experts - the director of pediatric emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Hopkins' child protection team coordinator - to conduct a training session late last year for county judges, juvenile masters, attorneys and social workers who regularly participate in court hearings to determine whether children are being abused or neglected. Those court proceedings are often referred to as CINA hearings, for Children In Need of Assistance.

"In a CINA case, compared to a criminal case, a social worker comes in - sometimes immediately in response to something that happens in a family - and evidence is put on, sometimes in a matter of a day later," said Cox, who has been hearing child protection cases for five years. "They don't have the luxury of a long investigation. You put on what you have and sometimes it can be a real challenge in cases that can be difficult to prove."

Patricia K. Cronin, executive director of the Family Tree, a nonprofit child abuse prevention organization, has served on Baltimore County's child protection review panel since its inception several years ago. She is working with county agencies to help implement the panel's recommendation to increase public awareness of child abuse and neglect.

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