In the best interest of our children

January 15, 2008|By Peter Beilenson

It happened again. Once more, a parent who has previously had children permanently removed because of a history of abuse has, according to authorities, fatally abused a subsequent child. The case of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris raises the same issues that are raised every time a similar case grabs the public's attention: How could this happen? Where was the city Department of Social Services? Didn't anybody see this coming?

All reasonable questions - but based on recent history, they will never really get answered, because there is not much political will to do anything to change a social service system that all too often places "family reunification" above what is in the best interests of children.

There is simply no constituency for these abused kids. They tend to be invisible; the abuse usually occurs behind the walls of the home, and the abuser is almost always a close family member. Thus, the problem of child abuse tends to remain invisible to the public until a particularly tragic situation such as the Harris case, or the Broadway twins before that, gets covered by the media.

When such an incident comes to light, a media frenzy is generated, as blame gets thrown around and politicians demand investigations.

Yet change almost never occurs. Baltimore's Department of Social Services simply hunkers down and waits for the furor to subside (usually in a couple of weeks) and goes back about its business, knowing that the lack of political will guarantees little continued interest. This allows for DSS' natural tendency to resist necessary change to continue.

Tragically, recommendations of needed reforms - which are neither terribly expensive nor overly labor intensive - have been neglected by DSS for years. These recommendations came from a team of experts who in 2004 reviewed dozens of cases of child abuse fatalities in Baltimore.

Two types of cases emerged from these reviews. In the first type, a child is temporarily removed from the home after abuse is discovered. After minimal intervention, such as a parenting class, the decision is made (often by a single overworked social service worker) to return the child to the home. The abuse then escalates, and the child is killed.

Our team found that time after time, the philosophy of "reunite the family at any cost" trumped the much more essential philosophy of doing what is in the best interest of the child. Far more services need to be brought to bear on these families, and the decision to return the child to the parents should never be made by anything less than a dedicated team of social work professionals.

In the second type of case, the parents have a history of child abuse so severe that children have been permanently removed from their care. Incredibly, the Child Protective Services division of DSS closes the case. Another child is born, yet in the large majority of cases, no services are provided, either before or after the birth, despite the fact that these are the parents at highest risk of abusing a new child. The parent, with no supervision or intervention by DSS, goes on to fatally abuse the new child.

What should be done? It is very simple: Child Protective Services should continue to check in on the parents who have had a child permanently removed every quarter or so, to make sure that the parents are getting the mental health, substance abuse or contraceptive services that are available. By staying involved with the family, the caseworker will know whether the mother gets pregnant again. If that happens, DSS can get to work to help the family prepare for a healthy birth and be at the ready to intensively monitor the situation at home once the baby is born. This way, the agency will have a reasonable chance of intervening early should troublesome behaviors begin to recur.

With the resignation yesterday of the city's DSS chief, Samuel Chambers Jr., now is the time to move forward with these important changes.

No one is saying a reformed DSS could prevent all cases of abuse. The parents are ultimately responsible. However, by requiring an intensive team decision-making process before returning a child who had temporarily been removed from an abusive parent, and by keeping Child Protective Services involved with families from whom a child has been permanently removed because of severe abuse, society will have demonstrated to the most vulnerable among us that we care about their welfare and won't tolerate inaction any longer.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, former Baltimore health commissioner, is the health officer for Howard County. His e-mail is pbeilenson@howardcountymd.gov.

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