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Hoping to improve communication and efficiency in child-abuse investigations, the county plans to open a center in the next month to bring together experts at a central location, county officials said.

Employees from the county Department of Social Services, the Police Department and the state's attorneys office will staff the new Child Advocacy Center. The center is funded by a $46,000 state grant.

"By working out of a central office we hope to coordinate much more closely on a case-by-case basis," said Carl Smith, a child protective services supervisor in Social Services.

The opening of the Child Advocacy Center coincides with the release last month of a county-commissioned study examining the county's handling of child-abuse cases.

The $7,500 study was conducted by two researchers from the Virginia-based American Prosecutors Research Institute over two days in the spring.

They found that the state's attorneys office has a reputation of not working with other agencies in handling child-abuse cases and is "perceived to be less than aggressive in accepting cases for prosecution."

The report is based on interviews with 20 local people involved in handling child-abuse cases, including social workers, police officers and school employees.

State's Attorney William Hymes disputed the findings, saying he has been a leader in the fieldsince 1984, when he assigned a prosecutor to specialize in child-abuse cases.

"In the last two years, we have charged people in every (child-abuse) case with the exception of one case in the last two years, and that one just didn't meet the criteria," Hymes said.

The report described the working relationship between the Police Department and county Social Service workers as "positive" and said the establishment of a Child Advocacy Center should improve working relationships between agencies.

Both Howard and Anne Arundel counties received state grants to open such centers, county officials said. There aresimilar centers in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

Initially, thecenter will handle the most serious cases of child abuse because these cases tend to involve the participation of all three agencies, said Dale Jackson, county child-care coordinator.

In addition to fostering cooperation among investigating agencies, Howard County's center will provide an appropriate environment to interview victims of child abuse, child-abuse experts say.

"I think the most important thing is that the space is going to be child-friendly," said Linda Zumbrun, an assistant director for social services.

"It's not in a two-story brick building or a police department; it's in a little house,"Zumbrun said. "It's designed to be less threatening for the children."

The county donated a house in Ellicott City for the center and contributed money for its remodeling, Jackson said.

The state grant money will go toward the salaries of a full-time receptionist and apart-time physician at the center.

Social service workers say that finding physicians to examine victims of child abuse has been a long-standing problem and are looking forward to working with a qualified expert in the field.

Smith said that the few doctors in the state who specialize in child-abuse cases practice in Baltimore.

Generally, child-abuse case workers in the county rely on hospital emergency rooms and available private physicians, who work on an as-available basis, for medical exams.

"Sometimes we have to wait a week to two weeks to get a child seen," Smith said.

Existing staff from thethree participating agencies will handle child-abuse investigations at the center.

Although center staffing has not yet been determined, the county hopes to have two child protective services workers based there.

Child-abuse investigators from the Police Department would probably spend a portion of their shifts at the center and prosecutors would work with center staff during the trial stage of cases, Jackson said.

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