Law is not the answer

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's General Assembly is considering a number of bills to try to avoid another tragedy like that of Bryanna Harris, whose mother is charged in her murder. The impulse is understandable, but administrative changes could be just as, if not more, effective.

That is certainly where Brenda Donald, the state's secretary of human resources, should direct energy and resources. While some legislative changes may be necessary, the main focus should be on putting in place a strong leader who can implement internal reforms that will allow Baltimore's Department of Social Services to better protect children and help families.

As a first order of business, Ms. Donald is rightly scrutinizing how to better handle cases where a child, such as Bryanna, is born into a family that is already known to caseworkers because one or more older siblings has been removed as a result of neglect or abuse. A proposed "birth match" program would assign caseworkers to the family before or after the new child arrives. It requires effective technology and up-to-date records to determine whether a newborn's home is seriously troubled. But it also requires better training and monitoring of caseworkers. With two daughters already in foster care, Vernice Harris apparently received some intensive services after giving birth to Bryanna. Ms. Donald today is expected to share with lawmakers the results of an inspector general's report that might reveal agency shortcomings and what signs of continuing danger in the home were missed.

A new law that would be helpful would allow closer examination of DSS files and records after a child dies; it could expose what went wrong and what changes are necessary to make things right. These records are now closed to the public and even to some authorities.

With support from Ms. Donald and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a committed new leader for DSS would ensure that caseworkers and supervisors receive better training, including increased practice in the field, for more successful case management and more team decision-making that includes families and tailors appropriate services to their needs. Such internal reforms are long overdue and can mean the difference between salvation and sadness for the city's most troubled families.

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