Vernice Harris

Vernice Harris, shown in an undated family photo. (Family photo / January 9, 2008)

The head of Maryland's Department of Human Resources ordered an investigation yesterday into the agency's handling of a 2-year-old girl whose mother has been charged with her murder.

Twice in Bryanna Harris' short life, social workers investigated whether her mother was neglecting her.

Vernice Harris had abused and neglected her two older daughters, court documents show, prompting Baltimore's child protective services to take custody of them in 2002.

In a half-dozen court orders about the welfare of those girls, no mention is made of their baby sister.

Despite her sisters' removal and despite two reports that Bryanna was being neglected, social workers allowed her to live with her mother in a run-down East Baltimore rowhouse on 25th Street that police said was infested with cockroaches.

"They said everything was cool," Harris' live-in boyfriend, Leonard Rhodes, said she told him after an April visit by social workers.

Less than two months later, on June 5 at that same rowhouse, the ambulance came. Bryanna was dead after ingesting methadone, a heroin treatment drug, and being dealt a blow to her abdomen.

Police arrested Harris last week. She is charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bail.

A statement released last night by Brenda Donald, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees the city's Department of Social Services, called Bryanna's death "very disturbing."

Donald wrote that the situation "triggered the demotion" of a supervisor in July and prompted her to order an investigation by the agency's inspector general.

The police description of how Bryanna died appears to be the latest example in Baltimore of a youngster killed by a parent who has already abused another child.

In recent years, similar high-profile cases have prompted calls for the reform of child protective services, but few changes have been made, according to those who follow children's welfare issues.

"This shows the multiple failures taking place in the system," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Maryland's Advocates for Children and Youth. "Baltimore City, and Maryland in general, unfortunately, are still in the dark ages when it comes to case practices."

Vernice Harris, 30, known in her East Baltimore neighborhood as Peaches, has a drug problem and a short temper with her children, according to former boyfriends and neighbors.

Charging documents in the murder case, as well as child welfare court orders for Harris' older daughters reviewed by The Sun yesterday, show that Vernice Harris has a history of abusing and neglecting her children, though she has never been criminally charged.

In March 2000, when her eldest daughter was about 2, social workers substantiated an abuse case against Harris. A neglect case, in April 2002, also was substantiated by social workers.

The Department of Social Services - a state-operated agency that includes child protective services - took custody of the older girls in 2002 and tried to place them with other relatives. The girls briefly lived with a maternal cousin but soon returned to shelter care, according to court orders.

By January 2007, social workers were telling the juvenile master supervising the permanent placement of the girls that Vernice Harris was uninvolved and "has mental health issues."

The mother had long since stopped attending court hearings, last saw her older daughters in April 2006 and did not ask about visiting them, the court order states.