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In Balto. County, Jobes case a sad reminder

Five and a half years before Baltimore police found 15-year-old Ciara Jobes starved and beaten to death in her guardian's O'Donnell Heights kitchen, Baltimore County officers started to investigate reports from the autopsy of a skinny third-grader named Rita Fisher.

Fisher, 9, died in the hospital after being brought there by paramedics called by her family -- the family that would later be convicted of torturing her to death in their Pikesville home.

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When her mother, older sister and older sister's boyfriend were tried for murder, it was shown that Rita had been beaten and starved, locked in a basement bathroom her mother called "the hole," and bound to her dresser at night.

For Baltimore County social workers, Jobes' story, told repeatedly in court papers and news stories since her death in December, is a horrific flashback. While many aspects of the city girl's case differ from Fisher's, the similarities are enough to make reading stories about Jobes seem "like deja vu," said Nick D'Alesandro, community liaison for the county Department of Social Services.

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"I talked with a lot of the [social workers] five years ago, and they talked about how hard-hitting the Rita Fisher case was," D'Alesandro said. "They devote their professional lives to saving children. I imagine some of those same feelings have emerged."

But in Baltimore County, much has changed since Rita's death in June 1997. And while county social workers said they always have a sliver of fear that a missed clue could mean the difference between life and death, they also said changes made during the past five years ease that worry.

"Some people obsess," said Joycelyn Williams, a county social worker whose unit decides whether to forward calls of suspected abuse to police officers and caseworkers. "But you have to feel comfortable with your decisions. You do the best you can."

Changes in the system

Although the county department is short-staffed, in part because of the state's hiring freeze, it has taken steps to improve coordination among schools, social workers and the police. There is a new computer system, which documents all calls that come into the department and lets screeners, such as Williams, share notes. There are protective services liaisons in the schools. Child abuse detectives and social workers now share the same office space.

"As tragic as Rita Fisher was, it brought agencies closer together," said Janet B. Ander, the supervisor of the department's screening section. "Now we have a better monitoring system."

One recent day at the screening unit, a cluster of cubicles in the large gray-and-cream office building, Williams demonstrated some of the policies Baltimore County put in place after Rita's death.

As she soothingly talked over the phone to a mother who called in asking for help with her children -- "You have to let them express themselves, feel like they've been heard," Williams said -- she clicked away in front of the flat-screen monitor, taking notes that any of her colleagues could access if the woman calls again and talks with another social worker.

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Williams looked up the woman's address, to see whether any other calls had come in about her family. In addition to the county's monitoring system, a statewide program shows when other social services departments have had contact with an individual.

The screening unit receives a variety of calls. A neighbor might call about suspected abuse next door, a teacher might be worried about unusual bruises, parents might call insisting they can no longer deal with their children.

Many cases are not clear-cut, Williams and other social workers said, which makes the tracking system all-important.

"Most things are not black-and-white," Ander said. "The caller might think it's clear, but it's not."

Covering the bases

Screeners will sometimes telephone schools to find out more about a child. There are designated liaisons at almost every school -- teachers or administrators who know the laws on abuse and neglect, and notification.

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Through a nearby door, police officers and social workers work on their cases in the same room, ready to evaluate any case Williams sends their way.

"We decide if we accept it as an investigative case, or whether we let [Social Services] handle it," said Detective Charlie Armetta.

Having everyone in the same room makes those decisions easier, he said.

For years, detectives and social workers involved with sex abuse cases worked side by side. But the physical abuse social workers and detectives were in different buildings, and would often find themselves in a telephone voice mail system when they needed to contact each other.

"Now we can just walk back and forth," Armetta said.

Some of the changes in the county since Rita's death are legislatively induced. In response to the outcry that surrounded the trial of her family members, Maryland lawmakers passed a bill that required social services departments to replace contractual caseworkers who received no benefits with full-time employees.

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It required improved training and recruitment strategies, higher pay for caseworkers and caseload ratios that complied with those proposed by the Child Welfare League of America.

D'Alesandro said that the county Department of Social Services has complied with the bulk of those proposals. The hiring freeze, however, makes it impossible to comply with the low caseload ratio required by the bill.

In recent years, the number of calls of concern to the Department of Social Services has increased -- a jump many social workers attribute to increased vigilance on the part of schools, neighbors and other citizens after Rita's death.

In 1998, the year Rita's family went on trial, calls about potential neglect rose to 1,060 from 780 the year before.

Last fiscal year, the department's screening unit referred more than 2,300 new cases to child protective services.

Carrying extra load

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But D'Alesandro said the department is 20 child welfare social worker positions short, and has 91 vacancies overall. That means everyone on duty works harder, he said.

Until the department can hire workers to fill vacancies in the screening unit, supervisory-level social workers from other departments fill in some days to make sure those front-line positions are staffed.

Each new story about Ciara Jobes is just another painful reminder of what they are fighting against.

"It's similar [to Rita Fisher's case] in that every day there's another story," D'Alesandro said. "There are pictures. The details are just so chilling."


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