Police Sgt. Sandy Regler cares for more than 50,000 children in Howard County. None of them is her own, but she says her interaction with them will prepare her for her first child, expected any day now.
Sergeant Regler, 33, heads the Child Abuse Unit of the Howard County Police Department. The unit, made up of four detectives and her as supervisor, is responsible for investigating the physical and sexual abuse of children in the county.
The 10-year veteran sees herself in a battle against societal trends that are harmful to children, including confusion over the limits of parental discipline and the proliferation of sex in advertising.
And she has never become inured to the incidents that her team investigates. "I don't think I'll ever get used to it," Sergeant Regler said. "I'm always surprised by the level of harm done to children."
One prominent example: The slaying of 15-year-old Tara Allison Gladden of Columbia last summer. It was a case that emotionally affected the child abuse detectives who became involved early in the investigation.
Tara's body was found in a culvert under Little Patuxent Parkway Aug. 17, 1993. According to Howard County police, Curtis Jamison, 29, of Baltimore, a suspect in the case, had been having sexual relations with the girl. He is serving a 20-year sentence in a Hagerstown prison forhaving sex with a 12-year-old Columbia girl last year and a 13-year-old Baltimore girl in 1992 -- crimes that were uncovered in the Gladden investigation.
"It was very stressful. The whole unit was involved," Sergeant Regler said of the case. "Any time you start looking for a missing person and that person is dead, it affects you."
She expressed hope that having a child will deepen her understanding of what the parents of child abuse victims go through.
"I hope this makes me have more respect for parents. But I hope I'm not going to be paranoid," she said. "Most parents ask whether you are a parent. Some people feel like you can't relate to them. People want to know, 'Do you feel my frustration?' "
The youngest of five children of an Army father, Sergeant Regler lived throughout the United States and in Germany. The family eventually settled in Baltimore. Sergeant Regler and her husband, Fred, now live in the Mayfield section of the city.
Three of her four brothers are police officers in Baltimore. But they never imagined her following suit.
"From growing up, I never expected her to follow that path," said her older brother, Doug Gardner, 40, a 14-year police veteran in ++ the Northwest District. "But having gone where she is, I'm proud of her. She was always her own person."
Sergeant Regler is one of 38 women police officers in Howard County's 282-member department.
"She's firm and she's strong," said Cpl. Stanley Proudlock, one of the four detectives she supervises. "She can go into a meeting with other sergeants and can sway any man. She's not easily backed into accepting other people's opinions."
In 1993, the department faced about 215 child abuse cases, which included physical and sexual abuse, as well as child neglect, nonsupport and custody violations.
The Child Abuse Unit investigated 67 of the most serious offenses last year, most of them involving physical and sexual abuse. Patrol units handled the rest, said spokesman Sgt. Steve Keller.
So far in 1994, the unit has investigated 69 cases. Sergeant Keller attributed the increase in reported child abuse to improved education on what constitutes abuse.
Most calls are reported to police from the Department of Social Services and the school system. Each detective handles as many as eight child abuse cases a month. Some are quickly closed, others require intense investigation, Sergeant Regler said.
Interviews with children are conducted in the Child Advocacy Center, where police, social workers, doctors and other advocates work on cases.
One of the cases investigated by Sergeant Regler's unit this year involved a Howard County police officer, who later resigned from the force. . The officer was charged with physically abusing his 5-year-old daughter during a dispute with his wife in June.
He was released on bond and ordered by a District Court judge to undergo treatment at an alcohol treatment center.
"My philosophy is that right is right," said Sergeant Regler. "We have to investigate what we believe is right. . . . People could lose faith in the system."
Although the work can be grim at times, Sergeant Regler draws satisfaction from knowing that she has helped abused children.
"It's not all depressing once you get past the shock," she said of the investigations.
"Kids are very resilient and can be very warm in the face of turmoil."