As father of starved infants pleads guilty, prosecutor says system still is not equipped to stop similar cases

A plea for better prevention

October 31, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Minutes after a father pleaded guilty to starving and beating his twin babies in the basement of a Baltimore rowhouse, a city prosecutor yesterday charged that the Department of Social Services has not made a key change that would prevent other children from meeting a similar fate.

Outrage from the May 2004 deaths of the babies of Sierra Swann and Nathaniel Broadway renewed calls to place a permanent social services caseworker at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the twins were born and where nearly all of the city's nonsexual child abuse injuries are treated.

Advocates of such a change say that a hands-on approach - rather than handling the cases by phone - would better protect vulnerable children.

"These two little babies should never have gone home with either Sierra Swann or Nathaniel Broadway," said Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, head of the Felony Family Violence Division, referring to the suspects.

Two and a half years after the deaths - and in spite of numerous calls to action from child-safety advocates - there is still no social services caseworker at Hopkins.

"The ones dragging their feet have been DSS, and I just don't get it," Drake said. She called assigning a caseworker to Hopkins a "no-brainer."

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services, run by the state Department of Human Resources, responded yesterday that "it's not a good use of staff time."

Fitzsimmons said social services employees are available at all times and, two years ago, began working nights and weekends. She said cases as extreme as the twins' are "fortunately rare."

Six months before twins Emonney and Emunnea were born, their parents had a 2-year-old daughter taken away because of abuse and neglect.

While at Hopkins after delivering the twins, Swann was struck by Broadway - an assault witnessed by hospital workers. Concerned about the young, troubled family, a Hopkins social worker called social services.

The employee who answered the phone said there were no "active" child abuse cases concerning Swann. But the employee failed to mention the previous abuse case and the fact that Swann, then 17, was listed in the system as a foster care runaway.

Swann and Broadway left with their babies.

The twins spent their short lives in the squalid basement of an abandoned Northeast Baltimore rowhouse that lacked electricity and toilets. They died of malnutrition when they were just a month old, weighing less at death than they did at birth.

Swann, 20, has blamed Broadway for the deaths and said she lived in fear of him. She pleaded guilty in February to two counts of child abuse resulting in death.

She agreed to testify against Broadway, and prosecutors agreed to a term of 20 years in prison for Swann when she is sentenced later this year.

Yesterday, Broadway, 27, pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. He had rejected three previous pleas, and Drake had vowed not to give him another deal.

The guilty plea yesterday was taken in the chambers of Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait while dozens of potential jurors waited in the courtroom in case the deal fell through again.

Drake said she renewed plea discussions because, over the weekend, homicide detectives interviewed two new defense witnesses who said they would testify that they had seen Swann "significantly injure" her older daughter, calling into question Swann's credibility as a witness.

Now having pleaded guilty, Broadway is scheduled to be sentenced in January. Drake said she will recommend a prison term of 50 years with all but 30 suspended.

After the plea, Drake said that having a social services caseworker at Johns Hopkins Hospital could have pushed the twins into state care instead of into the arms of abusive parents.

The idea to station a caseworker at Hopkins is not new. Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, then the city health commissioner, recommended it in a January 2004 report.

That spring, weeks after the twins died, Secretary of Human Resources Christopher J. McCabe announced after a private meeting with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy that he was "looking at exploring" funding for stationing a caseworker there.

And this March at a City Council hearing, Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the city DSS, said he has wanted to assign a caseworker to Hopkins but has not had the resources to do so.

At the same meeting, City Council President Sheila Dixon said she would like to use some of the city's budget surplus to pay for that. Fitzsimmons said yesterday that DSS has received no additional money from the city.

Dr. Allen R. Walker, medical director of the child protection team at Hopkins, said the pediatric emergency room sees about 1,000 child abuse cases each year.

He said social services employees have been in the emergency room more frequently since the department began around-the-clock staffing at its downtown building. But he said having a caseworker at Hopkins would further ease the process for traumatized children.

Beilenson said he was pessimistic about the possibility of his Hopkins recommendation ever being implemented. And with the court proceedings for Swann and Broadway ending, he said the spotlight on the idea may fade.

"Unfortunately, I think this will just close the case," he said, "and on we'll move."

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