Lawmakers seek closer monitoring after abuse

The Baltimore Sun

Disturbed that child protective services failed to prevent the death of a 2-year-old city girl despite previous investigations of her mother for child abuse and neglect, Baltimore lawmakers said yesterday that immediate legislation is needed to better track such cases.

The calls to monitor abusive women for new pregnancies came amid an investigation by Maryland's Department of Human Resources into the agency's handling of Bryanna Harris, who police say died in June after ingesting methadone and being dealt a blow to her abdomen.

Her mother, Vernice Harris, has been arrested and charged with murder, according to court documents made public this week. Harris' two older daughters had been taken from her because of abuse and neglect, but records reviewed by The Sun show that little attention was paid to her youngest child.

"What you don't want is a child who is abused below the radar screen when there were signals that could have been acted on," said Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein. "Clearly, if we can close the gap, we should do it."

Some child welfare advocates have called for Maryland to develop a system similar to Michigan's "new birth match," an automated check of birth records against a database with the names of individuals who have had their parental rights terminated. Matches are then investigated by child protective services workers to ensure newborns' safety.

Another tracking method would be for a child protective services caseworker to continue checking in with people whose parental rights have been terminated to watch for new pregnancies. The policy now is to end contact once a parent has lost his or her child.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he probably would propose legislation next week, after checking with Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration.

"If Dr. Sharfstein thinks there needs to be legislation, we'll work to get legislation right away," Anderson said.

O'Malley said yesterday that "we should do anything we can to close whatever loopholes exist that would allow even one child to slip through the safety net."

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has long taken an interest in child welfare issues, said the timing of Bryanna's death captured lawmakers' attention.

"I'm sure there have been numerous cases like this in the past, but when you have a bad case right at the start of the session, it often leads to legislation," he said. "It sounds like something we should have done years ago."

Bryanna's case has renewed urgency for an old idea.

In a January 2004 report forwarded to Human Resources, which oversees the Baltimore Department of Social Services and its child protective services, the city's former health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, recommended designing "measures to protect future children" of abusive parents.

He wrote that "there are no measures in place to supervise a ... child-abusing parent who goes on to have more children." The Child Fatality Review Team, which Beilenson oversaw, "has seen multiple deaths because of this abusive pattern."

Five months later, when twin babies died of malnutrition after their parents had an older daughter taken from them because of abuse and neglect, Beilenson renewed his call for action.

At the time, Mayor O'Malley was embroiled in a feud with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. because the governor had installed a city Social Services director without the mayor's consent. O'Malley discussed the deaths of the twins as he pushed that summer to have Ehrlich's choice removed.

That October, Samuel Chambers Jr. was chosen as director of Social Services, replacing Ehrlich's selection, and he has been at the helm of Social Services for more than three years.

Still, Beilenson's report had rarely been discussed before this week.

Asked yesterday why, as governor, he had not pushed for Beilenson's recommended reforms in the same way he had as mayor, O'Malley did not answer directly. He said he had been focused on solving fiscal problems and was now turning his attention to making government work better.

Beilenson said he attributed the delay "in part to politics" but more to "the historic resistance to change" within the Social Services.

The agency, Beilenson said, tends to "hunker down to withstand barrages of criticism" instead of making meaningful changes.

Chambers disputed that, saying yesterday that his agency is "literally reinventing itself."

Since the case of the twins, Baltimore police believe that about 10 other city children have died because of abuse, including Bryanna.

Chambers and Sharfstein said that while they support the idea of monitoring babies born to parents who have lost custody of their other children, they have not acted on it because of legal concerns.

Both also said that, while preventing harm to even one child is a worthy cause, few children over the years could directly benefit from Beilenson's recommendation.

Sharfstein said that, typically, parents who have had previous children taken away are in living situations so bad that their newborns come to the attention of child protective services anyway.

That was the case with Bryanna. In her short life, her mother was twice investigated for neglect. Her sisters, now 9 and 6, were taken by child protective services in 2002.

Matthew H. Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the situation points to "multiple failures in the system."

Yesterday, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and public defender, echoed that sentiment, saying she doubted that monitoring abusive women for new pregnancies would change anything.

"That all sounds great," she said of the idea. "I don't believe it's going to do anything as far as protecting these kids. And the reason is, the system is broken. You're putting paint on a broken wall."

Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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