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Mother charged with stabbing infant daughter

Hearing his co-worker scream Tuesday morning, "She's stabbing the baby, help!" William Purnell Short III ran into Room 117 at Baltimore's social services office on East Biddle Street.

Police said the 8-month-old girl had already been stabbed five times in the head, neck and chest. Short told detectives he saw a woman using her left hand to hold the baby on a table and her right hand to press a silver-bladed kitchen knife to the infant's throat.

"I'm going to kill her," police quoted her as saying.

Short threw a chair at the woman's face, forcing her to let go of the baby, who fell to the floor with the knife lodged in her neck. The veteran social worker grabbed the woman and held her until help arrived, even as she bit his hand, police said.

This account of the gruesome crime — as well as the efforts by Short and other social workers to subdue the assailant and save the wounded infant — were filed in court Wednesday. They outline the case against the 29-year-old mother, Kenisha Thomas, who is being held without bail on charges of attempted first-degree murder, assault and child abuse.

The infant, meanwhile, remained in good condition at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

"This is what people in child welfare are up against every day," said Molly McGrath, director of the Baltimore division of the Department of Social Services. "They come to work and stare down terrible things that are happening to children. It does not surprise me at all to hear that case workers in Baltimore City put themselves in harm's way to protect a child."

Thomas had been at the office for an hourlong supervised meeting with her daughter, identified as Pretty Diamond. The child had been removed from Thomas' care, police said; officials would not say when that happened.

Police said in the documents that Thomas told her social worker she wasn't happy with the care and "felt like she could do a better job." When the social worker told her the hour was over, Thomas said, "It is about to be over," and fumbled through her purse to grab a long thin kitchen knife, court documents state.

Authorities said that as the baby was stabbed, the social worker, Dana Hayes, ran from the room screaming for help. That prompted Short, a 23-year veteran with the agency, and colleague Angela Edge to run into the conference room.

After Thomas was restrained, the documents quote her as saying, "Lock me up. If I can't have her, nobody will."

The attack has sparked a review of security procedures at the social services office. It has also raised questions about how someone with a knife — and a criminal history that includes a conviction for assault and several charges of harassment — could get into the building and be allowed to visit a child.

Union leaders who represent social workers complained Tuesday that security was lax and called for replacing private guards with police from the Maryland Department of General Services, who patrol state office buildings.

Jeffrey Pittman, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said union leaders have pressed managers for better security "time and time again," only to be told of budgetary constraints. He said the stabbing shows that "these decisions have real and serious consequences."

Visitors to the social services office are supposed to go through a metal detector, show identification and have their bags checked. State officials said they are in the midst of an investigation to determine whether procedures were followed. Police said the suspect did not have an ID with her.

McGrath said it is too early in the investigation to say how security was breached on Tuesday. But she said that "everything is on the table," including replacing the private security company, Watkins Security Agency, which has offices in Baltimore and Washington.

The company's vice president, Hayden Moore, declined to comment Wednesday, saying the incident remains under investigation. He referred all questions to state officials. The company's website lists clients that include the Maryland Stadium Authority, the airport, city schools and a half-dozen federal agencies.

Citing privacy laws, McGrath said she could not address Thomas' history with her agency. She said that in general, staffers make every effort to ensure that parents are able to visit their children. Restrictions on visits are set by judges, McGrath said, typically in hearings that are closed to the public. All sides, including the children, through the Legal Aid Bureau, are represented by attorneys.

"Instances of adults becoming violent with their children during a visit is unusual," McGrath said. "We need to be very responsible without presuming that this is something every parent would do. Most parents love their kids and will die to protect them."

But she acknowledged that virtually every visit is fraught with problems. Few mothers accept that their children were removed, and many are addicted to drugs and have criminal pasts that include violence.

Still, McGrath said, "if we have to make a terrible decision to bring a child into foster care, we're obligated under federal law to work very hard to reunify a child with their parents. Parents have the right to see their child."

Thomas does not have an attorney, and relatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She has used more than a dozen addresses in the past several years, and has been arrested or faced criminal charges at least eight times since 2004.

Most of her cases involve charges of harassment, trespassing and destruction of property, according to court records. She was convicted of second-degree assault in 2008 and given a suspended sentence; the court file was not immediately accessible.

Two years ago, the pastor of a North Baltimore church complained that she sexually harassed him for months with lewd text messages and phone calls. When he spurned her advances, she threatened him, his wife and his children, according to court records.

Prosecutors took the case to Circuit Court but put it on the inactive docket. Court records show she agreed to terms of a protective order forbidding her to contact the pastor or his family, or visit his church.

State officials would not comment on what prompted them to take Thomas' child away from her. The social workers at the East Biddle Street office could not be reached for comment, and Short did not return a message seeking an interview.

But court documents describe a chaotic, dangerous confrontation in the hallways and conference room. They said the suspect "laid her daughter on a table," took out her knife and started stabbing. The social worker, Hayes, was standing six feet away.

Edge rushed into the room and told police she saw Thomas standing over the baby, holding her down with one hand and the holding the knife in the other. She stepped toward the woman, police said, but retreated when the suspect said, "I am going to kill her."

Edge said she was afraid that if she left, the baby would die, so she stayed in the doorway. Short then came in, slowly maneuvered around Thomas, and threw a chair at her, hoping to divert her attention. The court documents say Thomas used the hand she was holding the baby with to deflect the chair.

Police said in the court documents that Short threw another chair, this time at Thomas' head. She dropped the baby, and Short "moved toward Kenisha and restrained her from hurting the child any further," the court documents state.

Another social worker, Elaine Jackson, ran in and found the baby "lying on the floor with a black handled knife in her neck," police said in the documents. She removed the knife and took the baby, cradling it until paramedics arrived.

According to the documents, two witnesses told police that they heard Thomas say, "I hope my baby is dead."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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