For kids, a safety net in tatters

Baltimore woes are target of statewide reform effort

Sun Special Report

April 27, 2008|By Greg Garland and Lynn Anderson | Greg Garland and Lynn Anderson,Sun reporters

Four-year-old Damaud Martin rests in a coma-like state in a Baltimore hospital, his once-bright smile gone. Relatives who visit him at the Kennedy Krieger Institute say doctors have told them it's likely he will never run, jump or play again.

He was a victim of shaken baby syndrome, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services said in a court filing. Police are still investigating what happened to Damaud, who has been hospitalized since Jan. 19, but one thing is clear. The injury occurred two months after the social services agency, with court approval, sent him home.

Damaud and his sister were reunited with their mother under an "order of protective supervision," which required close monitoring. Their grandmother, Rosita Martin, said she had begged the caseworker "not to drop the ball on this." After Damaud's brain injury, the agency fired the worker and disciplined a supervisor for lapses related to the case.

His injury is another example of the social services agency's inability to protect some of the most vulnerable children in Baltimore.

Months earlier, the death of a toddler who swallowed methadone sparked public outrage when it was learned that the agency and the city's health department had missed chances to save Bryanna Harris. Five social services staff members were fired or disciplined. On Tuesday, her mother, Vernice Harris, was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

Allegations of child abuse and neglect pour in statewide, but Baltimore - which accounts for six of 10 children in Maryland's child welfare system - has by far the most. This is at the heart of the challenge facing Maryland Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, who since Bryanna's death has accelerated reform of the agency, one of 24 local arms of the department.

Protecting children is tough in the city, where drug use and crushing poverty tear families apart. The agency faces additional challenges because it is understaffed and its workers generally have weaker credentials than their suburban counterparts, The Sun found in an examination of how child abuse cases are handled.

Only about one in 10 caseworkers holds master's degrees in social work and fewer than 10 percent are licensed social workers. Shorthanded for years, according to standards set by the Child Welfare League of America, the agency's staff of 866 caseworkers and supervisors oversees the care of 7,300 children.

The bleak environment of many city neighborhoods complicates the casework. Children are at risk by virtue of living in dilapidated homes on crime-ridden streets. Mothers sometimes put their babies' cribs on cinder blocks to keep away rats entering through holes in walls and floors. Social services workers often encounter parents addicted to drugs or alcohol or suffering from mental illness.

Since Donald took over early last year, she has directed much of her attention to reforms in Baltimore. "The system did not get broken overnight, and it's not going to get fixed overnight," she said. "We're moving as fast as we can, faster than anyone has before."

She replaced top managers, started training programs, supplied tools such as cell phones and laptops and began to revamp screening procedures so that the agency concentrates on serious allegations. She has also strengthened ties with law enforcement and others who deal with children at risk.

An encounter with Baltimore police in the fall of 2006 led to the placement of Damaud Martin and his sister in foster care. At that time, they were staying with their mother in a homeless shelter, according to interviews with family members.

She and a girlfriend rented a moving van so they could move out of the shelter but got into an argument, they said. Police were called. Authorities placed Damaud and his sister in foster care with their grandmother, Rosita Martin, according to court documents filed by the city social services agency.

They stayed with their grandmother, who became a licensed foster parent, for about a year and were returned to their mother last November. Tamekia Martin had met social services requirements for reunification: she had taken a parenting class, leased a house and had a part-time job, court documents show.

But it wasn't long after the children returned to Martin's home - which their mother shared with the girlfriend, her five children and sometimes the woman's father - that Damaud got hurt.

Responders to a 911 call from the house Jan. 19 reported finding the boy unresponsive in a bedroom. A spokesman for the Fire Department said Tamekia Martin was "not able to provide information as to what happened to the child," according to the paramedics' report .

A lawyer for the social services department later said in a filing for the court, "The child safety team at Johns Hopkins Hospital has ruled this as a case of shaken baby syndrome."

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