A woman who lost custody of her children while in a city witness protection program filed a $34 million lawsuit against the Baltimore Department of Social Services yesterday, alleging that her toddler son suffered a fractured skull when he was slammed onto concrete steps while staying with a foster family.

The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court alleges that the boy, who was 2 1/2 at the time of the incident last year, sufferers from severe brain damage and requires constant medical care.

The 15-year-old daughter of the foster care provider was arrested in October and charged with child abuse, reckless endangerment and second-degree assault.

DSS officials said yesterday that they had not reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment on it.

The alleged abuse case represents the latest in a string of incidents that have shaken the state's social services network.

Last month, child advocates were outraged when they learned that hard-to-place foster children were being illegally housed in a downtown office building. Earlier this year, elected leaders vowed to undertake reforms after an investigation by The Sun exposed lax oversight at privately run group homes.

State and local officials have promised changes but caution that it could take years to turn around the social services system, which serves more than 10,000 foster care children every year, most of them in Baltimore.

Recently, DSS officials have talked about opening an emergency shelter to house troubled youths, as well as revving up recruitment efforts for foster families.

Witness in attack

The toddler's mother, Martina Ford, agreed to testify for the city State's Attorney's Office in a case involving the attempted murder of a city police officer in 2002. According to the lawsuit, Ford lost custody of her son, Brandon Williams, and his three siblings last year after she was hospitalized for sickle cell anemia.

Before placing children with a foster family, caseworkers usually review a prospective home as well as the people who live there, including running criminal background checks on anyone 18 years or older.

Joseph B. Espo, an attorney who represents Ford, said DSS officials failed to do a thorough background check on foster parent Chloe Ann Jones, 56, of the 3700 block of Brentford Road in Randallstown. He also alleges that DSS failed to regularly monitor Brandon and his sister, Naya Williams, 5, once they were placed in Jones' care.

Ford's other two children - Jada Brown, 2 1/2 , and Keyon Ford, 10 1/2 - were placed in other homes.

Criminal charges

But according to court documents, DSS case workers allowed Brandon and Naya to be placed with Jones despite the fact that she lives with a man who has a criminal record, including assault and drug possession charges.

Those types of charges would typically bar a family from participating in the foster program, a DSS official said.

DSS caseworkers also apparently did not know that Jones had a teenage daughter or that she left Brandon and Naya with the girl while she was away from the house, the lawsuit maintains.

"I don't know what sort of background check was done, but it seems clear that it was grossly inadequate," Espo said.

An attorney for Jones, J. Wyndal Gordon, said that he was going to hold a news conference today to tell his client's side of the story.