Missing-child report prompts review

Baltimore County Social Services took 9-year-old into custody without parents knowing

May 07, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The Baltimore County Department of Social Services said yesterday it will review notification procedures after a 9-year-old boy taken into the agency's custody was reported missing to police, resulting in a frantic, 24-hour search before the mix-up was resolved Saturday night.

Gabriel Hudgins, a third-grader at Middlesex Elementary School, was picked up Friday afternoon at his Essex school by a social worker and placed in a foster home pursuant to a court order, said spokeswoman Maureen Robinson.

A department supervisor left Gabriel's father a cell phone message Friday afternoon, notifying him of the custody transfer, Robinson said, but Woodrow Beahm said he never received the message.

"I thought he was in a ditch dead somewhere," Beahm said.

When Gabriel had not returned home by 7 p.m. Friday, Beahm called police. He and the boy's mother, Penny Hudgins, then spent a sleepless night searching railroad tracks - where Gabriel was reportedly last seen - visiting friends' houses and checking a nearby carnival.

By Saturday, the search team had expanded to include Gabriel's classmates and a Middlesex Elementary teacher. Police were urging people to call with tips.

It wasn't until Saturday night that police were notified by social services that Gabriel was in their custody, authorities said.

Though reports of the missing child were publicized on local television channels, Robinson said DSS officials familiar with Gabriel's case were unaware until Saturday night that the boy had been reported missing.

"Unfortunately, this did happen on a weekend, where ... people are not out necessarily looking at the news," she said.

Robinson said a greater effort to contact Gabriel's father might have prevented the confusion.

"We could obviously follow up, and make a visit to the home and make sure the parents understand what happened," she said. "But failing to have heard from them, we just assumed that since the child was safe ... we really didn't see the necessity of having to go that next step."

Other than leaving a cell phone message, DSS workers did not attempt to contact Gabriel's family after taking him into custody, Robinson said.

But because the boy had been put in temporary foster care within the past year and remained under court-ordered supervision, Gabriel's father should have checked with DSS before assuming his son was in danger, Robinson said.

For his part, Beahm said that he didn't check with Gabriel's social worker because he had run into her Friday morning and said she gave no indication the agency was planning to take the boy into custody again.

Citing privacy concerns, DSS officials declined to discuss the specifics of Gabriel's case. Beahm said he believes the agency was concerned about the re-emergence of Gabriel's mother - recently released from prison - into his life.

Beahm said he was also upset that Middlesex Elementary officials failed to notify him about his son's situation.

Robinson said the school's principal, Gabriel's teacher and a guidance counselor were present when his social worker took the boy away at the end of the day Friday.

DSS officials said better coordination with local police also might have prevented confusion. "It seems to me we're going to want to have a stronger contact with the precinct, and they with us, to try and establish a situation where they might call us before they launch a search for a child," Robinson said.

As a matter of course, DSS does not inform law enforcement agencies when it takes children into custody, Robinson said. There are more than 400 foster-home placements made in the county every year, she said, adding that she could not recall a similar situation in her 16 years with the agency.

Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. Michael Hill declined to answer questions about police procedure or how many resources were deployed in the search for Gabriel, saying the incident wasn't urgent enough for the agency's communication department to address it on a weekend.

A spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said the county government would analyze the incident with the police chief and the head of the social services agency.

"Anytime there is a miscommunication, you want to review it to try and ensure it doesn't happen again," said spokesman Don Mohler.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Phil McGowan and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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