Abusing a child is the worst act an adult can commit.
Erroneously labeling a parent a child abuser is one of the worst acts a state government agency can commit.
Carroll County's Department of Social Services has received a black eye recently for mistakes that have been made in recording child abuse cases on its computerized data systern and keeping files on cases that should have been expunged. As a result two lawsuits have been flied recently against officials in the department, and DSS has been receiving a heavy dose of bad publicity.
Some of the aggrieved parents describe the department as though it were a modern Star Chamber, meting out harsh and arbitrary judgments on innocent parents. Department officials point out they are required by law to investigate every allegation of child abuse and neglect.
"We are obligated to ensure the safety and protection of the child," said M. Alexander Jones, who heads Carroll County's DSS. "We are not conducting a criminal investigation. Our purpose is to provide help if it is needed."
There is no denying that child abuse had been one of society's dirty secrets that was too often ignored and tolerated.
The problem is that we have created an environment in which any physical injury is treated as a possible case of child abuse. We have also created a climate in which the allegation of child abuse can take on a life of its own.
Just ask David and Marsha Hodge.
They took their 3-month-old son to Carroll County General Hospital on Jan. 20, 1989, with a swollen arm. Physicians at the hospital misdiagnosed the swelling as a broken arm and referred the case to a social worker for investigation into possible child abuse. (Later, doctors determined that the swelling was caused by a bone infection, which was later cured by surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.)
The social worker investigating the case interviewed the Hodges and quickly concluded there was no evidence to support the charges.
That, unfortunately, was not the end of the case. DSS diligently entered the allegations of child abuse into the department's "automated master file." The computerized data bank has information on hundreds of thousands of people being served by the department - including welfare recipients, mentally ill adults, homeless people and child abusers.
For three years, the Hodges tried to get their names removed from the files.
The DSS, in its best Big Brother fashion, refused to remove the Hodges from the data bank. It also denied them access to the information in their file. The department maintained the Hodges had no right to a hearing on the file or its contents.
The Hodges sued in federal court to have the information expunged. They were able to see their file for the first time this past August. Not only were the Hodges listed as child abusers, they were alleged to have sexually abused their son.
"What we saw was a gross misuse of bureaucratic power," said Edwin Vieira, the Hodges' attorney. "It was bad enough that the information was in the file, but then they found out it was wrong."
Mr. Jones and his assistant, Alan L. Katz, would not talk about the Hodge case but said that the department was very much aware of the sensitive nature of the files.
"If you call up and ask if there is a file on you, I am obligated by law to say that I can't confirm or deny the existence of such a file," Mr. Katz said. "It takes a court order for me to acknowledge the existence of the file."
The only other way the files can be released is if the person investigated signs a notarized form allowing them to be given to officials charged with determining the person's fitness to be a foster care or adoptive parent or to be a day care provider.
In Carroll County, there are about 300 to 350 child abuse complaints filed annually. About 30 to 40 percent of the complaints actually result in a finding of child abuse.
The concern is over the rest, where the allegations are either "ruled out" or "unsubstantiated." Once DSS starts a child abuse file, it maintains it for at least 120 days. Even if the case is "unsubstantiated," the file might be maintained for five years.
Like any bureaucracy, DSS maintains the files to protect itself. These documents can be used to show that the agency investigated charges but couldn't prove them.
Could an aggrieved spouse or political enemy use the child abuse files as part of a vendetta?
Highly unlikely, said Mr. Katz, who maintains the law is extremely specific on releasing information.
At the moment, the controversy over the records weakens confidence in DSS. Under the current record-keeping system, perfectly innocent parents are deprived of normal due process and could find their reputations mined as questionable child abuse charges sit like time bombs in state data banks.
It is quite possible that this concern about the child abuse files is overblown. Given the emotional nature of child abuse charges and the police-state implications of vast amounts of unpurged computer files, DSS ought to make every effort to maintain only the files it needs and to ensure the information in them is accurate.
Otherwise, the department stands a good chance of losing its credibility in the community. Should that happen, the real victims will be the children who are getting abused.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.