Social services chief resigns

Baltimore official's departure follows death of 2-year-old

January 15, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

The head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services resigned yesterday, less than a week after reports that the mother of a toddler who died of a methadone overdose and abdominal beating had been charged in the child's death.

Samuel Chambers Jr., a former child welfare official who worked for decades in Michigan, was hired in October 2004 to improve the city's Social Services Department, which had been criticized for failing to prevent deaths of children resulting from abuse and neglect.

Rumors of his possible resignation had circulated before police arrested Vernice Harris this month in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna Harris, in June.

Child advocates said her death could have been prevented.

Chambers was ordered recently to work as co-director with a superior from the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees child welfare statewide, and he was meeting regularly with the head of that department, Brenda Donald, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last year.

The toddler was the sixth child to die of abuse-related causes in the city since Chambers joined the department, according to data kept by the Child Fatality Review Team.

Donald did not comment on the reasons for Chambers' departure yesterday, but in an e-mail to social services staff members she called him a "true professional."

She said she also accepted yesterday the resignation of Alvin Parks, an assistant to Chambers, because the Social Services Department "needs stronger leadership and expertise," the e-mail said.

Donald said she will work with Mayor Sheila Dixon to find a replacement for Chambers and that she will conduct a national search to find the right person.

Winifred Wilson, the Department of Human Resources' deputy secretary for programs and a former Montgomery County social services director, will be interim director of the Baltimore agency. In the fall, Donald chose Wilson to help Chambers institute reform as part of an effort called "Baltimore ReBuild."

The Department of Human Resources was also under the microscope yesterday.

Lawmakers in Annapolis expressed anger over the department's fiscal management as they were briefed about an audit finding shoddy procurement and accounting practices that have persisted for years.

The department wasted "several million dollars," according to auditors, by combining two computer services contracts into one, leaving only one company willing to bid for it.

The Sun detailed aspects of the contract -- including the involvement of a firm run by a prominent Republican -- last year.

Child advocates who have worked with Chambers praised his passion yesterday but said he was hobbled by a lack of financial support and lacked the administrative skills to move the agency in the right direction.

"It seems like the appointment of Winifred Wilson as a co-director was not a sign of confidence" in Chambers, said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Maryland's Advocates for Children and Youth. "You either have confidence in him and you empower him, or you don't. Ultimately, Sam Chambers was accountable for the continued poor quality of [casework] in the city."

Shoddy casework seems to be a large part of what lead to Bryanna's death, according to police and court documents. Twice, caseworkers investigated whether her mother was neglecting her. Harris, 29, had abused and neglected her two older daughters, court documents show, and the girls were removed from her home in 2002.

In a half-dozen court orders concerning the welfare of those girls, however, no mention is made of their baby sister. Despite her sisters' removal and despite two reports that Bryanna was being neglected, caseworkers allowed her to stay at the family's squalid rowhouse in East Baltimore.

Last week, Donald called for an investigation into the girl's death, which she called "very disturbing."

In years past, similar cases have prompted calls for reforms of the agency, but political wrangling, budget cuts and bureaucratic ineptitude have made that difficult to achieve, advocates who track the welfare system say.

Charlie Cooper, head of the statewide Citizens' Review Board for Children, said lawmakers failed to enact at least one reform because of budget constraints.

That reform, called "new birth match," would provide an automated check of birth records against a database containing the names of people whose parental rights have been terminated. Chambers used a similar program in Michigan and advocated its use in Baltimore.

"It is the question of do you have to wait until the kid gets hurt or can you push the kid off the railroad tracks just before the train hits it," said Cooper, adding that some lawmakers felt the program would be too costly (a fiscal note at the time said it would cost about $2 million to implement) or might infringe on parents' rights.

In Bryanna's case, such a program might have led to her removal from her mother's home before her death, he said.

Last week, after news reports of Bryanna's death, lawmakers said they would revisit the issue.

Julie Drake, who heads the Baltimore state's attorney's felony family violence unit, said she had high hopes for Chambers when he arrived three years ago but was disappointed.

She said he could have stationed caseworkers at Johns Hopkins Hospital, as recommended in 2004 by a child welfare reform committee on which she served, but didn't. All child abuse cases are routed to Hopkins.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.

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