Tragedy prompts policy review

They've distributed cell phones to child abuse investigators. They've brought in medical experts to explain to lawyers and judges the often-complicated diagnoses in civil cases involving abused or neglected children. And they've set up ways for arson investigators and police officers to inform social workers of children at home during a fire or left alone in cars.

A year after two Dundalk boys died and their mother was charged with child abuse that resulted in her older son's death, Baltimore County government agencies have tried to learn from the case and tighten up the policies and procedures designed to keep children safe.


The deaths of 6-month-old Donald Lechner and 3-year-old Roy Lechner Jr., four months apart and under medically indeterminate circumstances, did not require an extensive overhaul of the child protective system, county officials said. But with a nip or tuck here and there, county officials say they hope they have removed obstacles and added safeguards to streamline agencies' work with other families.

"This was not a case where something slipped through the cracks," Mark Vidor, assistant director of the county Department of Social Services, said of the agency's interaction with the Lechner family. "The number of contacts and breadth of involvement by us and others was kind of staggering.


"Whenever a child dies, it's a terrible thing and people ask what more could have been done. This case doesn't lend itself to, 'This is what went wrong. This is where we dropped the ball.' But this case has ... made it abundantly clear to us that we need to be abundantly clear in these issues."

Denise Marie Lechner, 26, was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for child abuse that resulted in Roy Jr.'s death. She told police that her son stopped breathing shortly after she had swatted his bottom, causing him to tumble down the basement stairs.

The medical examiner who conducted the toddler's autopsy listed the boy's fall, his asthma, a seizure, an untreated strep throat infection and asphyxiation due to smothering as possible causes of death. He could not determine whether Roy Jr. died from natural causes, an accident or a homicide.

Roy Jr.'s death followed more than 150 visits from Baltimore County social workers and the November 2004 death of his baby brother. The medical examiner similarly could not attribute Donald's death to natural causes, an accident or a homicide. His cause of death was listed as sudden unexplained death in infancy.

In a report delivered in December to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., the county's Child Protection Panel made nine broad recommendations, including professional education and training of DSS staff, police, judges, juvenile masters and relevant attorneys regarding "the nature of sudden unexplained death in infancy and the risks to surviving children that might arise from such situations."

That cause of death is similar to a finding of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, according to medical experts. However, a finding of sudden unexplained death in infancy generally means that medical examiners found the death to be suspicious but could not pinpoint why.

"Even though it's unexplained doesn't mean there isn't reason for concern," said Timothy W. Griffith, director of the county's social services department.

Added Vidor, "We want to make sure that people know it doesn't mean it's a benign event just because you can't explain it."


To that end, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox invited two experts - the director of pediatric emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Hopkins' child protection team coordinator - to conduct a training session late last year for county judges, juvenile masters, attorneys and social workers who regularly participate in court hearings to determine whether children are being abused or neglected. Those court proceedings are often referred to as CINA hearings, for Children In Need of Assistance.

"In a CINA case, compared to a criminal case, a social worker comes in - sometimes immediately in response to something that happens in a family - and evidence is put on, sometimes in a matter of a day later," said Cox, who has been hearing child protection cases for five years. "They don't have the luxury of a long investigation. You put on what you have and sometimes it can be a real challenge in cases that can be difficult to prove."

Patricia K. Cronin, executive director of the Family Tree, a nonprofit child abuse prevention organization, has served on Baltimore County's child protection review panel since its inception several years ago. She is working with county agencies to help implement the panel's recommendation to increase public awareness of child abuse and neglect.

"The point we want to make, and what was really apparent with the Lechner family, is that while parents are a child's first protection, it's everyone's role to have an awareness of what's going on in our community and to have an interest in protecting children," she said. "It's a tragic case, one in which we're trying to gain some learning."

County officials say they are reviewing and prioritizing the panel's recommendations and, one by one, taking steps to address them.

County police have already changed the way they handle reports of children left unattended in vehicles, making sure to pass such citations along to the department's family crimes unit. Those officers work in the same building as DSS child abuse investigators.


Arson investigators with the county police and fire departments also have made arrangements to inform social services any time a child is in a home that catches fire.

Vidor said that such information might tip off social workers about whether there is abuse that should be investigated or, in situations when a family already has an open DSS case, details about the fire can be added to the file.

In the Lechner case, social workers did not immediately find out about a house fire that investigators blamed on a "child playing with fire" or a police citation that charged Denise Lechner with leaving the two boys in the family's truck while she shopped.

"That was really a place that information that would have been useful to have in a timely way didn't cross over," Vidor said.

Social services also has improved the ratio of supervisors to case workers, distributed cell phones to field investigators, developed protocols for when a case will be reviewed by department supervisors and administrators, and sought grant money to help its own staff better cope with the trauma inherent in child protection work, agency officials said.



Sun reporters Liz F. Kay and Nicholas Shields contributed to this article.

Policy revisions

These are some of the recommendations that the Baltimore County Child Protection Panel sent to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. in December after reviewing the Lechner case and systemic child protection issues.

Review training for school, public safety and medical workers who are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

Coordinate services among child- and family-serving agencies, including the collection of a family's history with child protection systems in Maryland and other states.

Establish child protection teams in as many area hospitals as possible.


Improve identification of high-risk families during the prenatal and perinatal time periods to help them find necessary services in their communities.

Promptly forward police citations for unattended children and reports of fires in homes with children to social services.

Provide training regarding sudden unexplained death in infancy to social services staff, police, judges, juvenile masters and attorneys involved in civil child abuse and neglect cases.

[Source: Baltimore County Executive's Office]