The city's Department of Social Services has begun staffing its downtown office around the clock to be better prepared to respond to reports of child abuse, city officials announced yesterday.
Since Wednesday, department child welfare caseworkers in the Child Protective Services division have been monitoring phones 24 hours a day at the 1900 N. Howard St. office. They also will be available to go to scenes of alleged abuse seven days a week, said Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.
"We understand that Baltimore City is really a city that never sleeps," said Floyd R. Blair, interim director of the city department. "Now we have more components to serve ... better at night."
Blair said an internal workgroup of DSS employees proposed the idea.
Employees were asked to volunteer for the night shifts, and 25 will be handling the posts, West said. Since they are employed by the department, "costs are minimal," he said, even though they will be paid more for the odd hours. He said he did not have an exact figure for the cost to the city.
Shifting of duties
Since the staff will be spread out to cover the round-the-clock hours, some work of the day staff will be handled at night, in addition to duties of taking reports of abuse over the phone.
"We've got a place now that never closes," West said. "It's a matter of being more responsive, quicker. Whenever you have a child in imminent distress, Baltimore DSS will respond."
The move comes more than five months after the city's health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, issued a report compiled by eight experts containing recommendations for improving the department.
The recommendations included suggestions on how to better protect "future children" of parents with documented histories of abuse as well as stationing caseworkers in hospitals around the clock, seven days a week. But the recommendations were ignored by the department and the state agency that runs it for more than three months.
In May, month-old twins died after their 17-year-old mother - whose first child had been taken away because of abuse - had been allowed to leave Johns Hopkins Hospital with the girls despite an effort by a hospital social worker to find information about her past.
The call to Child Protective Services apparently failed to produce information about either a previous case of abuse or an outstanding warrant for the young mother for running away from her foster home. A month later, the teenager and her boyfriend were charged with murder after the twins were beaten to death.
Beilenson has said that if the child protective system had been functioning optimally, the deaths might have been prevented.
In the right direction
Now that the Department of Social Services is implementing at least one round-the-clock location, Beilenson said it is headed in the right direction.
"I think it's a good first step," he said. "We're pleased that they're moving on some of these recommendations. There are many other aspects of the system that need to be changed."
The move to keep the call center open at all times was not triggered by highly publicized abuse cases, such as the one involving the twins, West said.
"The best policy isn't event-driven," the spokesman said. "This is something that's more comprehensive."