Authorities are investigating Tuesday's security breach at a Baltimore social services office, which police said allowed a woman hiding a large kitchen knife in a bag to enter the building and stab her 8-month-old daughter.
The infant was wounded in the neck and head, and police said a social worker was in the room when the stabbing took place. The baby was in good condition at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and as of Tuesday evening, no charges had been filed against the mother, who was in police custody.
But the incident raised questions about safety in a building where tense, emotional meetings between parents and their estranged children are routine.
"No, our folks do not feel safe," said Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the union that represents social workers throughout the state, including those at the East Biddle Street building where the attack occurred.
"People who come into these offices are going through a difficult time in their lives," Moran said. "Sometimes they act out and act irrationally. This time, it's a baby who was the victim. That's unacceptable."
Officials representing the city Department of Social Services said an extensive review is being conducted to determine if security guards followed procedures, and if those procedures are sufficient.
"We are absolutely looking into all these questions and working very closely with police," said Ian Patrick Hines, a spokesman with the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "We are reviewing our security procedures at all of our sites to [determine] how this came to happen and make sure it doesn't happen again. This is a very unfortunate situation."
The building is in a nondescript, block-long office complex in the 3000 block of East Biddle St., just west of Edison Highway. It is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and visitors are required to show identification, submit bags for inspection or search, and walk through a metal detector. Police said the woman, described as in her late 20s or early 30s, did not have identification with her.
Hines described the sort of violence that occurred Tuesday as "extraordinarily uncommon."
Moran, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said complaints about lax security have been made in meetings with agency managers — to no avail. Moran said he's been trying to increase security patrols on floors where meetings such as the one on Tuesday took place.
The union head said he would prefer to have Department of General Services police instead of a private security force. "Those are the people you need to do the job," Moran said. "Events such as this are going to become more commonplace if security needs are not met."
Baltimore police detective Donny Moses, a department spokesman, said the stabbing occurred shortly after 10 a.m. He said the mother was in a room with her daughter and a social worker when she "became irate."
Moses said the woman took a large kitchen knife out of a bag and stabbed the girl several times, including in the head and over her left eye. He said the social worker was not injured.
"We have a long way to go with this," the detective said of the investigation. Police did not detail how the woman was subdued.
Police said it was too early to determine why the mother — who cut herself on her hands during the attack and was treated by paramedics at the scene — became angry. Neither Hines nor police would describe how she was involved with social services or whether she had a history of violence. Her name was not made public because criminal charges had not yet been filed.
Joan Little, who runs the child advocacy unit for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, said the social services office has to fulfill dual roles — to ensure safety and to provide a comfortable environment for parents and their children. She described the rooms as having toys and games, but also as "institutional gray."
The get-togethers can often be uncomfortable, occurring under the watchful eyes of counselors who work for the agency that in many cases separated the children from parents.
"These are difficult situations," said Little, an attorney whose staff represents children in welfare and neglect cases. "We want to promote family visits. It is so tough when a security situation like this happens.
"Normally, everyone would be supporting more contact between children and parents, and not restrained contact." The idea, she added, is for the "mother-baby visit to be personal enough that it can support the bonding that is supposed to be happening."
Little, whose attorneys visit the East Biddle Street building at least once a week, said it would be counterproductive for a security guard to attend each meeting. But she would support it when violence is a part of a parent's history.
Little said she feels safe in the building. She said there is a metal detector at the entrance, and she has seen guards going through purses and checking IDs, though not every time.
"It's not like airport security ... " she said. "I don't feel that it's a dangerous environment. But certainly we're dealing with parents who have significant mental health problems, and significant drug problems. On any given day, anything can happen."