Schools seek better policy to find abuse Balto. County plan would require adults to report likely cases; 'Our eyes and ears'; Death of Rita Fisher inspires proposal to boost staff training


In the wake of the child-abuse death of Rita Fisher, Baltimore County school officials are considering a substantially tougher policy that would hold all adults -- including parent volunteers and student teachers -- responsible for reporting suspected cases of abuse.

The new policy would also require increased training for all staff members -- many of whom are the first to see signs of abuse -- and designate one person in every school as the main contact point for police and social services investigators.

"I think this proposed new policy will really go a long way toward helping all of us better protect children," said county social services Director Barbara L. Gradet. The changes are critical, she said, because "the schools are our eyes and ears on a daily basis."

The proposed policy, expected to be approved by the school board next month, is the latest in a series of major steps by local officials to better detect and report child abuse after 9-year-old Rita died in June -- Baltimore County's first such death in 15 years.

Last month, three people were convicted of second-degree murder and child abuse in Rita's death -- her mother, Mary E. Utley; her sister Rose Mary Fisher; and Fisher's boyfriend, Frank E. Scarpola Jr.

During the trial, testimony revealed that employees at Winand Elementary School, where Rita was a third-grader, filed reports of suspected abuse with Child Protective Services but never heard the outcome of their reports.

Under a recently adopted procedure, the county Social Services Department must send letters to people who file such reports detailing the outcome of investigations. Other countywide changes over the past year include a new computerized system to track calls, an expansion of the county's Child Advocacy Center to coordinate investigations of sexual and physical abuse, and additional training for social workers on new state abuse laws.

After Rita's death, state officials also provided money for the county to hire staff members to reduce social workers' caseloads, although the county has had trouble finding people to fill those positions. But the school system's proposal is among the most substantial changes.

"We think these changes will improve communication and improve the follow-up procedures," said Jessie Douglas, lTC executive director of the school system's Department of Social Services. "All of us are going to be able to do a better job of working together."

Gradet said she did not know what proportion of her department's reports of suspected abuse comes from the schools but said it was "significant." This school year, school employees have reported 941 cases of suspected abuse to social services. Countywide, child abuse complaints increased by 37 percent in the three months after Rita's death.

Combined effort

The school system policy proposal was jointly developed by officials from the county school district, social services and Police Department, said Phyllis Bailey, associate superintendent of the Division of Educational Support Services.

Many of the changes are intended simply to make the current policy more explicit in defining abuse and the legal reporting requirements, Bailey said.

For example, the proposed changes include a definition of mental injury as "substantial impairment of a child's mental or psychological ability to function caused by an omission or series of omissions by a parent or caretaker."

State law and Baltimore County's current policy explicitly require teachers and other certified school personnel to report suspected abuse or risk losing their teaching certificates.

But the proposed policy also holds volunteers and student teachers responsible for reporting suspected cases of abuse to police and social services, and cooperating with investigations.

"We talk to student teachers about child abuse before they ever go into a classroom," said Edward W. Holmes, chairman of elementary education at Towson University. "We always recommend that if they suspect there is abuse, they should report it to their supervisor. This change doesn't seem to conflict with that."

Developing training

In addition to explicitly making all adults in schools responsible for reporting abuse, school officials plan to better educate them. An administrator and a teacher in every school will attend central training sessions and then return to their schools to teach their colleagues.

"We're developing some training that will reach everyone who works in schools, from faculty to parent volunteer," said Rowland Savage, coordinator of the school system's office of guidance and counseling services.

The school system's plan for additional training was praised by teachers who say they have felt ill-prepared at times about what they should be looking for.

"It is important that everything is explicit and there is proper training," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "A major concern of the teachers has been getting enough adequate training, and it sounds like they are taking steps to help address that issue."

The other major change in the policy is designating a "child protective services liaison" at every school to serve as the contact person for police and child protective services investigations.

"Our assumption is that the guidance counselor will serve in that position in most schools," Bailey said. "They will be able to help keep track of incidents."

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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