Child abuse is a serious matter. As the economy has deteriorated and families find themselves besieged, the incidence of abuse increases. There are now about 300 to 350 cases of alleged child abuse and neglect reported annually to the Carroll County Department of Social Services (DSS). In about 90 to 120 of those cases, DSS finds sufficient evidence of abuse or neglect to intervene to protect the child.
Considering the importance of its mission -- to protect children -- and the scarcity of its resources, it is distressing to see DSS expending time and money in lawsuits over its record-keeping procedures. It is also discouraging to see DSS's inexplicable resistance to correct mistakes in the case of David and Marsha Hodge.
The Hodges had been investigated for possible child abuse after bringing their 3-month-old son to Carroll County General Hospital with a swollen arm. Doctors misdiagnosed the cause of the swelling. Thinking that the arm was broken due to a beating, the doctors referred the case to DSS for investigation. The social worker determined there was no evidence of child abuse, but someone at DSS incorrectly put in the computer file that the Hodges had "sexually abused" their son.
For years, Mr. Hodge tried to have the record expunged from the state files. DSS officials refused. It took a federal judge to open VTC those files and allow the Hodges to see them.
It is ironic that citizens have more access to their credit reports than they do to DSS' child-abuse files. This is not a good state of affairs, particularly because child abuse carries an indelible stigma. The other danger is that because all allegations of child abuse must be investigated, a computerized file is created regardless of whether the charges are substantiated.
DSS needs to establish procedures that allow parents who have been accused of child abuse to review their files. If there are disagreements about the information, parents should have the opportunity to submit a rebuttal. The department has opposed creating such a system, saying it only encourages an adversarial relationship between parents and the department.
If DSS doesn't want the reputation of being an imperious bureaucracy, the department should make these simple changes in its record-keeping procedures.