Failure all around

January 31, 2008

The heartbreaking death of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris, allegedly at the hands of her mother, is made even more tragic with the release of the inspector general's report and its suggestion that workers in Baltimore's Department of Social Services were negligent in dealing with this family.

Most shocking is the revelation that Vernice Harris, the child's mother, went to the city agency a month before Bryanna's death and asked for help, but she was turned away because her past cooperation with the agency had been spotty. In addition, there were so many caseworkers and supervisors - 18 in all - involved in the case over seven years that there was little continuity, coordination or a shared sense of accountability. That's simply unacceptable when the lives of vulnerable children are at stake.

Brenda Donald, head of the state's Department of Human Resources, which oversees DSS, and who ordered the inspector general's report three weeks ago after Ms. Harris was charged in Bryanna's death, deserves credit for sharing the findings openly with the General Assembly and the public. But the report makes clear that wholesale changes are needed at DSS - changes that Ms. Donald still needs to push aggressively, even while the search for a new DSS director continues.

The Harris family tragedy wasn't solely the result of a few incompetent or indifferent caseworkers. The report suggests a number of critical agency shortcomings: Too many workers (10) and bosses (eight) were in the mix, with insufficient knowledge or a lack of judgment to get Bryanna out of danger, and they failed to follow through and make sure that Ms. Harris received needed drug treatment and mental health services. Even after caseworkers decided Ms. Harris couldn't be reunited with her two older children who had been placed in foster care in 2002, no one in charge gave enough thought to Bryanna's welfare and safety. And finally, there was an overall failure to recognize the cumulative risks - including the previous neglect and drug abuse - in the Harris home.

Ms. Donald must hold to her promise to take disciplinary action where warranted. But she, too, must be held accountable. The secretary says she will beef up training and retraining of caseworkers and supervisors; enhance procedures - including better monitoring of children born into families with a history of abuse or neglect - that would more accurately assess risk; and improve internal communication and coordination. She owes it to the 6,000 children under DSS' watch to keep those pledges.

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