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Saving children

The Baltimore Sun

It's been seven months since 2-year-old Bryanna Harris died in the care of her mother, but only this week has Maryland's secretary of human resources, Brenda Donald, called for an extensive and presumably objective investigation. That seems like an agency looking for a way to quiet critics who are questioning how well the state and the city's Department of Social Services were overseeing a family in distress.

Bryanna's mother, Vernice Harris, was charged Tuesday with first- and second-degree murder, among other counts. She allegedly killed Bryanna last June by giving her an overdose of methadone and beating her in the abdomen. Why weren't more flags raised about - or attention paid to - this mother when two older children had been removed from her because of abuse and neglect? An investigation might illuminate more details, but the key question is why reforms that might have prevented this tragedy have not been implemented.

With her two older daughters taken into custody by child protective services in 2002, Ms. Harris and Bryanna should have gotten extra attention from DSS. But other than noting that the Harris apartment was messy and roach-infested, caseworkers don't seem to have suspected that Bryanna was in danger. Yet the mother's boyfriend and some of her neighbors have said they observed Ms. Harris frequently beating the child.

Ms. Donald has ordered a more thorough inquiry. She wants a report within 30 days, at the same time that a reform effort may bring personnel and procedural changes to DSS.

But reforms are overdue. There have been child fatalities in at least two other families being watched by DSS in the past few years. In 2004, after infant twins died of abuse, a panel led by the city's public health officer recommended a series of reforms, including supervision of a convicted child-abusing parent who has other children. Ms. Harris was not criminally charged in the past, and whether she was under special scrutiny is not clear.

Beyond an investigation, a sharper focus on protecting children, especially those who might be more vulnerable because of previous sibling abuse, is needed. Ms. Donald and Gov. Martin O'Malley (who had first-hand experience with problems at DSS when he was mayor of Baltimore) have to make sure that DHR and DSS get the help needed to save the next Bryanna before it's too late.

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