A plea for treatment

Our view: More help is needed for troubled and addicted parents

April 25, 2008

Vernice Harris won't go to prison because prosecutors can't prove that she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna, by feeding her methadone. Although Ms. Harris has agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter, she will be sent to treatment for long-standing mental health and substance abuse problems. The immediate catch is that she has to wait about three months to get into a program. But the long-term lesson of this family's troubles is that more careful and consistent oversight by Baltimore's Department of Social Services might have resulted in earlier treatment that could have prevented subsequent tragedy.

By her own admission through court documents, Ms. Harris is a high school dropout with a significant history of mental illness, including psychosis, suicidal thoughts and depression. She also has a history of drug use, including marijuana and crack cocaine. And although she had no criminal record before Bryanna's death, she had two older children placed in foster care because of neglect.

A report by the inspector general of the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees Baltimore's DSS, documented terrible lapses in the handling of this case, with little or no consistency among the 10 caseworkers and eight supervisors who were involved. Ms. Harris was referred for mental health and substance abuse treatment, but she failed to show up at least once and continued to use drugs. Given that denial and relapse are common among long-term addicts and that Ms. Harris was also mentally ill, where was the plan by DSS workers to keep after her and ensure that she was getting the services she needed? Bryanna's welfare was directly related to her mother's well-being.

DSS officials now insist that caseworkers are getting better training, practical experience and supervision to avoid similar results. At the same time, there must be more available treatment options so that troubled parents can be helped as quickly as possible after problems are identified.

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