Baby death spotlights services to disabled

Grandfather says agencies paid too little attention

September 05, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Madison Park | Justin Fenton and Madison Park,Sun reporters

From the start, social workers were concerned for Seth. They were present in the emergency room when he was born and visited his mentally disabled parents' Abingdon apartment in the days after he went home to make sure he was receiving proper care.

But after that, alleges the boy's maternal grandfather, Jesse Stacey, a retired Aberdeen police officer, the social workers didn't do enough.

He complained to them that his daughter, Giovanna Mosley, and her husband, Richard, who was left with brain damage from a car accident, weren't properly caring for his grandson. Social workers returned to the apartment in April and found the 7-week-old child unresponsive in his crib. Seth was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Last week, the Mosleys and a man who was living with them were arrested and charged with second-degree murder and first-degree child abuse resulting in death. The three were ordered held without bond yesterday during a hearing in which a prosecutor alleged the two men had "tossed the baby around" and the mother had not intervened.

The case is likely to draw new attention to the challenges faced by mentally disabled parents and the support agencies assisting them. As recently as 50 years ago, the mentally disabled could be forcibly sterilized, but today the government recognizes their rights and only intervenes if the parents request help or if there are allegations of abuse and neglect.

"It shouldn't be assumed that having a disability and an inability to parent are things that co-exist," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center. "There has to be a vigilant analysis, not focusing on disability but the parent's conduct, that needs to be examined. ... They have rights to have families, too."

Stacey said his daughter does not understand that her son is dead, underscoring her mental shortcomings and the need for social services to have kept close watch over the new parents. He believes Seth should have been taken from the couple at birth.

"There were enough issues raised [by the department] about their ability to take care of a child that they should've never been able to leave that hospital," said Stacey, 56.

Jerry Reyerson, the county's director of social services, said the agency was actively involved with the family and aware of "issues" that required greater scrutiny. He said he could not comment on specifics related to the case because social workers are likely to be called to testify.

"We were actively involved with this family," Reyerson said. In general, the agency tries "to do as much as we can while respecting fundamental parents' rights."

Though there is little research in the field, one estimate placed the number of children born annually to mentally disabled parents at 120,000 - with as many as 40 percent ending up in foster care.

A 1993 study by a quality care commission in New York found many parents with mental retardation had low self-esteem and resisted help from outsiders. Nearly half of the families were subjected to allegations of abuse or neglect, and one-fourth of the children did not receive adequate medical care, dental care or nutrition.

But in 2002, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that social service officials must offer services tailored to the needs of mentally impaired parents who do not want their children placed for adoption, siding with a Westminster man who officials said was well-intentioned but unable to care for his two children.

The man, identified in court papers only as "Mr. F," had limited intellectual capacity, resulting in his feeding his younger child pumpkin bread that was past its expiration date and wanting to take his children swimming at a pool that has no shallow section. But the court said social service officials must evaluate parents and refer them to suitable programs.

Social service agencies typically get involved through a referral from someone such as a health professional, neighbor or teacher who reports concerns about a child's care, and a Social Services employee investigates whether the child is in danger, said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the Maryland department of human resources.

The number of programs available for mentally disabled parents has grown in the past 10 to 15 years, but advocates say they are still inadequate because of the large number of adults in need.

"The mandate of most child protective services is to support the integrity of the family," said Barbara Whitman, director of family services and studies at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "When you have to allow for somebody to fail, and that failure is the death of a child, that's where we question our laws."

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