Inquiry in toddler's death faults agency

State chief says case workers missed signs of family problems

January 29, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

The death of a Baltimore toddler might have been prevented had case workers with the Department of Social Services better communicated with one another about the needs of her family, especially those of her drug-addicted mother.

That's the conclusion of an initial inquiry into the death of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris, whose mother has been accused of feeding the child methadone and beating her to keep her quiet. The internal review was ordered by Department of Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, who gave a brief overview yesterday in Annapolis.

"There were signs that should have been paid attention to that were missed," said Donald, appearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Donald plans to release details of the report when she appears today at a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Afterward, she is expected to hold a news conference to review reform measures already in the works at the city's social services department.

Donald acknowledged yesterday for the first time that missteps by case workers, whose job it is to watch over some of the state's most fragile children, played a role. A supervisor already has been demoted in connection with the girl's death, which occurred in June.

"There were a number of case workers that touched the family," Donald told the Health, Education and Human Resources Subcommittee, whose members departed from fiscal topics to hear more about Bryanna's case. The toddler's mother, Vernice Harris, 29, was arrested this month and has been charged with first-degree murder.

Donald, who took the helm of the massive welfare agency about a year ago, also told the committee that there was no one person or department that failed Bryanna. Instead, she implied that multiple failures in the system had allowed Bryanna to stay with her mother even though two older daughters had been placed in foster care.

"There was not one particular thing that contributed to the child's death," Donald said.

She added, however, that there were several "things that should have raised concern."

Donald told the budget subcommittee that a number of case workers who were in contact with the Harris family were not communicating or collaborating, resulting in a failure to share some important information.

The toddler's death has renewed calls for top-to-bottom reform of the city's social services agency as well as legislation that would require case workers to check in on families with a history of abuse. Since 2003, at least six children born to parents with such histories have died despite families' contact with the social services agency.

Donald, who has called Bryanna's death "deeply disturbing," has stepped up reform at the city social services agency. She recently accepted the resignation of agency Director Samuel Chambers Jr., and placed a top administrator from her own Cabinet in command until a new director is hired.

Even before Chambers left, Donald had initiated "Baltimore ReBuild," an effort that required administrators at the city social services office to meet regularly with a support team of supervisors from the Human Resources Department, which oversees child protective services statewide.

Donald had hoped that the meetings would help Chambers make changes. However, in recent interviews, Donald has implied that one problem facing the agency could be a general lack of training among case workers, and, in some instances, incompetence. She has said that going forward, some could be fired for poor case work.

"We are determined to ensure that workers have the training they need to make the best decisions," she told lawmakers yesterday. "I will stand up for my workers when they do their jobs, and I will hold them accountable when they do not."

Donald reviewed her proposed 2009 budget of nearly $1.8 billion, a roughly 5 percent increase over last year's. She said one goal would be to recruit more foster families so that children in out-of-home care can stay near their parents' homes. Another is to reduce placements in group homes or residential treatment facilities that cost significantly more.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, urged the agency to pay more money to foster families, especially in his county and others near Washington, which recruits Marylanders by offering larger monthly reimbursement checks. Donald told him that her agency has recently raised foster family payments, and that those payments could increase in jurisdictions near Washington.

"We need to be more competitive," said Currie, who chairs the full committee.

The chairman of the budget subcommittee, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties, said that he was hopeful that Donald could implement changes to make the social services system more responsible.

"It's been pretty dismal in terms of vision or competency," said Kasemeyer, referring to past administrations. "You really bring a lot of hope."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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