Child's death prompts action

Md. lawmakers move to improve tracking of potential abusers

January 28, 2008|By Lynn Anderson and Greg Garland | Lynn Anderson and Greg Garland,SUN REPORTERS

Spurred by the death of a toddler named Bryanna Harris, legislators are introducing bills intended to identify parents and others who might harm children before abuse occurs, closing gaps in a system that has too often failed families in Baltimore.

Among other things, the bills would require city and county social services officials to keep track of parents with a history of abuse so that any new children they have can be protected. Some legislators want to broaden that approach through reporting systems that would identify children who come into contact with known abusers, such as pedophiles.

But the record shows that proposals such as this often go nowhere once the publicity and outrage surrounding a child's death subsides.

Four years ago, a group headed by then- Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson strongly recommended reform measures similar to some of those now being proposed. As with Bryanna, they followed the death of a child - David Carr. In 2003, the newborn's skull was crushed by his mother, who had been convicted a year earlier of abusing another child.

Legislators introduced bills in 2006 and 2007 that would have matched up case workers with troubled families before, or shortly after, a new child was born. But several factors - political spats between state and city officials, budget woes and concerns that the legislation might prove too invasive to families that had rebuilt their lives - combined to kill those bills in committee.

One difference today, however, is that the Department of Human Resources, which oversees welfare services in the state, says it hopes to take some of these steps on its own.

"That's what we're trying to determine now," said department spokesman Norris West.

The department is under new leadership. Secretary Brenda Donald, a former social services administrator who worked in Washington, was named head of the agency a year ago.

Bryanna's death last year from a lethal dose of methadone led to the arrest of her mother and outrage over the city Department of Social Services' failure to prevent the tragedy.

Shortly after Vernice Harris, 29, was charged with murder this month, the city agency's director, Samuel Chambers Jr., resigned, and a supervisor in the department was demoted. Donald has ordered an investigation by the state agency's inspector general.

Some experts say the safeguards being proposed in Annapolis would not necessarily have saved Bryanna. She died in June after her mother, a longtime drug addict, gave her the heroin treatment drug and beat her on the stomach.

Vernice Harris had a history with the Department of Social Services, which took custody of her two older girls in 2002. But when Harris had Bryanna three years later, the child was allowed to remain in the home even after the city agency received reports of neglect.

Some advocates say case workers should stay involved with troubled parents so they will know when the family has another child and can provide support and services to reduce the risk of future abuse.

Prevention is part of broader reforms long urged by advocates. They favor a "wrap-around" approach that would provide an array of services such as job training and placement, mental health and parental counseling, and housing and medical assistance.

Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said agencies need to pool information and resources to help families, many of whom live in poverty.

"The child welfare system can't solve this problem alone," Davidson said. "It never will, in any state."

Still, other states have taken steps to prevent child abuse that Maryland has not. Minnesota, for example, started a "birth match" program to alert social services when a new child is born into a family with a history of child abuse.

"I got sick to my stomach every time I read another story about a child whose older siblings had been removed from a home for abuse and yet another baby would die," said Matt Etenza, a former Minnesota legislator who introduced the bill. "These sorts of deaths are totally preventable. All it takes is a little bit of will to look into these situations."

The Maryland proposals include one that would establish a program similar to Minnesota's and two that would set up a reporting system to identify children who might be endangered by a parent or adult with a history of violence. Some critics, including public defenders and child advocacy groups, say they fear that families with a history of abuse, but who had made changes in their lives, might be unfairly targeted.

Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs, a Republican from Harford County, wants to protect children by adopting the model used in Minnesota. The bill would require health and social service agencies to check birth records against child abuse files.

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