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Mother asked for help

The Baltimore Sun

A month before Vernice Harris allegedly killed her daughter by giving her methadone and beating her, the mother asked a Baltimore Department of Social Services caseworker for help but was turned away.

That's one of the findings of an investigative report released yesterday by the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees child protective services statewide. DHR Secretary Brenda Donald ordered the report in the wake of Vernice Harris' recent arrest on charges of first-degree murder in connection with the 2-year-old's death in June.

Bryanna is one of six children who have died since 2003 despite the fact that their families, which had histories of abuse, had prior contact with the social services agency. In the case of the Harris family, two older children had been removed from the home after the agency found that Vernice Harris had neglected them. Bryanna, however, was allowed to stay with her mother in a house that police later found to be filthy and infested with cockroaches.

The report by the state Office of the Inspector General depicts the city social services agency - which cares for roughly 6,000 children in foster care as well as some adults - as chaotic and dysfunctional. At least 18 supervisors and caseworkers had contact with the Harris family over a seven-year span before and during Bryanna's short life, the report states. However, those workers didn't communicate well enough with each other and missed important clues about the family's well-being, the report says.

"To have a child die is obviously the worst thing [that can happen] in the work we do," Donald said yesterday at a news conference. "We do this work because we care about children and families, and to have a situation like this is heartbreaking."

Donald said she will review employees' conduct with the family and decide by mid-February if any workers should be reprimanded, demoted or fired. The report shows that supervisors and caseworkers did not adhere to existing policies to protect vulnerable children and that, at times, they were not even following basic rules of good casework.

Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, said that the mother was "doing the best she could" in raising Bryanna. But the attorney said the mother needed lots of guidance. "Any professional who had contact with her should have realized that," Rowland said. "She would run into [a] roadblock and not know what to do. ... It's a shame DSS couldn't pick up on that."

The state's investigation also found that:

Caseworkers failed to make sure that Vernice Harris, 30, got into a drug treatment program. Instead, Harris waited more than a month for drug treatment, all the while continuing to use drugs and putting Bryanna at risk.

The local department did not perform a comprehensive review of Bryanna's death.

To address lapses identified in the report, Donald said she is moving forward immediately to overhaul the city social services department. She said she had hoped to take more time to review policies and procedures, but circumstances, including Bryanna's death and the recent resignation of former DSS Director Samuel Chambers Jr., made that unthinkable.

"We can't pretend that it is life as usual," said Donald, who has been in her position for about a year. "We are going to move ahead as quickly as possible."

A big part of reform will mean retraining for close to 2,000 caseworkers and supervisors, Donald said. Their roles will also be clarified so there is no confusion about who should do what if a child is in immediate danger, she said. Improving communication between groups of employees also will be a priority, she said.

Donald also has requested legislation to authorize an alternative response to some reports of child abuse or neglect and has said that she will support a bill to expand the number of state employees required to report suspected instances of abuse. She also endorses the creation of a "birth match" program to alert social services when a child is born into a family with a history of abuse.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he is committed to working with the city to reform a "historically" troubled institution.

"We're trying to find a balance between new legislation and administrative changes that might accomplish the same goal," Rick Abbruzzese said.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said there is momentum this General Assembly session behind possible legislative fixes.

"For 20 years we've heard about these horrible cases from time to time," he said. "And in light of the Harris case, there will be an abundance of legislation that will be introduced that we'll be considering."

Preventing child abuse and neglect has become a growing issue nationally as states struggle to find the most effective policies and programs to protect children from harm. At a news conference in Washington yesterday, a nonprofit group called Prevent Child Abuse America released a study pegging the economic costs of child abuse and neglect nationally at $103.8 billion in 2007.

Local advocates said they have been begging for reform at the city agency for years - especially in areas of caseworker training and recruitment.

"Historically, it has been a free-for-all," said Ameejill C. Whitlock, child welfare director for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore. "They have said, 'Let's just get a warm body in here.'"


Sun reporters Greg Garland, Laura Smitherman and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

How the case unfolded

April 22, 2002: Vernice Harris loses custody of her two daughters.

March 18, 2005: A third daughter, Bryanna, is born.

March 20, 2005: A neglect report triggers intensive family services.

April 17, 2007: Child protective services opens a neglect case against Harris.

May 2007: Harris is refused help with Bryanna.

June 5, 2007: Bryanna Harris dies after being beaten and given methadone.

Jan. 2, 2008: Vernice Harris is arrested and charged with murder in connection with the death.

Jan. 29: Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald releases report finding that multiple workers had contact with Harris.

SOURCES: Department of Human Resources; police and court documents

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