Spurred by the death of a toddler named Bryanna Harris, legislators are introducing bills intended to identify parents and others who might harm children before abuse occurs, closing gaps in a system that has too often failed families in Baltimore.
Among other things, the bills would require city and county social services officials to keep track of parents with a history of abuse so that any new children they have can be protected. Some legislators want to broaden that approach through reporting systems that would identify children who come into contact with known abusers, such as pedophiles.
But the record shows that proposals such as this often go nowhere once the publicity and outrage surrounding a child's death subsides.
Four years ago, a group headed by then- Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson strongly recommended reform measures similar to some of those now being proposed. As with Bryanna, they followed the death of a child - David Carr. In 2003, the newborn's skull was crushed by his mother, who had been convicted a year earlier of abusing another child.
Legislators introduced bills in 2006 and 2007 that would have matched up case workers with troubled families before, or shortly after, a new child was born. But several factors - political spats between state and city officials, budget woes and concerns that the legislation might prove too invasive to families that had rebuilt their lives - combined to kill those bills in committee.
One difference today, however, is that the Department of Human Resources, which oversees welfare services in the state, says it hopes to take some of these steps on its own.
"That's what we're trying to determine now," said department spokesman Norris West.
The department is under new leadership. Secretary Brenda Donald, a former social services administrator who worked in Washington, was named head of the agency a year ago.
Bryanna's death last year from a lethal dose of methadone led to the arrest of her mother and outrage over the city Department of Social Services' failure to prevent the tragedy.
Shortly after Vernice Harris, 29, was charged with murder this month, the city agency's director, Samuel Chambers Jr., resigned, and a supervisor in the department was demoted. Donald has ordered an investigation by the state agency's inspector general.
Some experts say the safeguards being proposed in Annapolis would not necessarily have saved Bryanna. She died in June after her mother, a longtime drug addict, gave her the heroin treatment drug and beat her on the stomach.
Vernice Harris had a history with the Department of Social Services, which took custody of her two older girls in 2002. But when Harris had Bryanna three years later, the child was allowed to remain in the home even after the city agency received reports of neglect.
Some advocates say case workers should stay involved with troubled parents so they will know when the family has another child and can provide support and services to reduce the risk of future abuse.
Prevention is part of broader reforms long urged by advocates. They favor a "wrap-around" approach that would provide an array of services such as job training and placement, mental health and parental counseling, and housing and medical assistance.
Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said agencies need to pool information and resources to help families, many of whom live in poverty.
"The child welfare system can't solve this problem alone," Davidson said. "It never will, in any state."
Still, other states have taken steps to prevent child abuse that Maryland has not. Minnesota, for example, started a "birth match" program to alert social services when a new child is born into a family with a history of child abuse.
"I got sick to my stomach every time I read another story about a child whose older siblings had been removed from a home for abuse and yet another baby would die," said Matt Etenza, a former Minnesota legislator who introduced the bill. "These sorts of deaths are totally preventable. All it takes is a little bit of will to look into these situations."
The Maryland proposals include one that would establish a program similar to Minnesota's and two that would set up a reporting system to identify children who might be endangered by a parent or adult with a history of violence. Some critics, including public defenders and child advocacy groups, say they fear that families with a history of abuse, but who had made changes in their lives, might be unfairly targeted.
Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs, a Republican from Harford County, wants to protect children by adopting the model used in Minnesota. The bill would require health and social service agencies to check birth records against child abuse files.
Other proposals, by Sen. Delores G. Kelley of Baltimore County and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore, both Democrats, would require health-care workers, law enforcement and school-based employees to report when they learn of children born to, or living with, an adult who has been convicted of child abuse or sexual abuse.
Such reform proposals have been floated in the past, only to fail.
Former Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said political differences between then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hindered reform efforts.
"We made great efforts to focus on the real work of social services, but it still served to be a significant distraction. That was unfortunate," said McCabe, now interim vice president of development for the Howard Hospital Foundation, an arm of Howard County General Hospital.
But there were also concerns about costs, with estimates for staffing a "birth match" program ranging from $2 million to $4 million as the state was wrestling with budget shortfalls.
"It was just impossible to get the bills passed with" those cost estimates, said Charlie Cooper, administrator of the State Citizens' Review Board for Children, which reviews cases of children in the state foster care system. "Even if we think we have an idea that will save money in the end, that doesn't get counted."
Donald declined to comment for this article, but a spokesman said that she has agreed to support a "birth match" program.
That's a step in the right direction, advocates say.
Even as he was proposing reforms in 2004, Beilenson, the former city health commissioner, was pessimistic about their prospects. In comments that proved prescient, he told a congressional subcommittee in May of that year:
"Frankly, I have been disappointed by the vague responses to our recommendations and the middling willingness to redress the gaps in operations, policy and strategy of this child protective services system. ... I fear that the state is in danger of talking about this issue ad nauseum without institutions actually changing."
Young lives lost
Six children who were born to families with a history of abusive behavior have died in Baltimore in recent years:
June 2007: Bryanna Harris died after being given a lethal dose of methadone and being beaten. Her mother, whose older children are in state custody, was arrested in connection with the toddler's death.
May 2006: Zion Clemmons, a 16-month-old boy, died after his mother left him in the care of an incompetent babysitter who threw him against a chair. Zion's mother, who had two other children, had been cited for abuse the year before.
May 2004: Emonney and Emunnea Broadway, twin girls who were less than a month old, died of malnutrition while living with their parents in an abandoned rowhouse. Six months earlier, the couple's 2-year-old daughter had been removed from their care for abuse.
February 2004: Alicia Mackey was smothered by her mother, who had lost custody of five older children. After testing positive for cocaine at birth, Alicia was placed in foster care but then allowed to live with her family until her death at age 18 months.
April 2003: David Carr, a newborn, was beaten to death by his mother, who had been convicted the year before of child abuse for breaking the arms and legs of an older son, James.
Sources: Court and police records