Protecting children

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IN MANY Maryland cities, the first baby of the new year often merits a few words in the local newspaper, a spot on the evening news. But this year, the infant who made headlines in Baltimore was its first homicide victim.

An emergency call brought police to the infant's Northwest Baltimore home: Child not breathing. Joshua Watson was 1 month old on the first day of the year, the day he died, beaten about the skull, neck and legs. Within a week of his birth, a physician reported to Baltimore social service workers that Joshua was sick, but no cause for his illness could be found. Within two days, the case was closed. Within 19 days, his parents were charged with his murder.

Joshua Watson is yet another of Baltimore's expendable children. That a child, a boy just barely here, should die so violently is shocking, but not necessarily surprising.

At last year's end, more than 10 percent of Baltimore's 278 homicide victims were children or teens.

Thirty-two, to be exact. Most -- ensnared in the drug trade, settling scores or being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- died from gunshot wounds. Many had been arrested repeatedly. Preventing those deaths would have required -- what? A less alluring drug trade, tougher gun laws, drug treatment on demand, a more holistic juvenile justice system?

But eight of the child homicides last year were attributed to abuse, four more than the previous year.

A city panel of physicians, child advocates and prosecutors has offered several recommendations to the city's child protective services agency to help children at risk of abuse. Only one has been implemented, although it is a critical one: Baltimore social workers are available 24/7 to respond to a complaint of suspected child abuse.

It's time the Baltimore Department of Social Services adopted the others:

Implement a multidisciplinary team review of child welfare cases in which a child has been removed from his or her parents' care (however temporarily) and is being returned home. The review should be comprehensive and weekly to ensure appropriate services accompany a child's return to a family and are being used.

Step up recruitment to increase the number of foster parents.

Conduct background checks and mental health screenings of guardians. The need for tougher screenings was tragically revealed with the 2002 murder of Ciara Jobes, a disabled Baltimore teenager whose mentally ill guardian beat her to death.

Baltimore has the grim distinction of caring for the largest number of Maryland children who have been abused or neglected by a family member; an estimated 7,000 are in the custody of the state. Some children are returned to their parents or family members, and some don't ever come to the attention of state officials again. But for the estimated 8 percent of children who do? Their families require greater scrutiny -- and help -- so that as a society we can say we did all that we could to protect children and their siblings. Children like Joshua Watson can't protect themselves.

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