Md. aims to stop deaths of children

During an intense grilling by legislators yesterday, state child welfare officials said they're making incremental changes to prevent more child abuse deaths but added that legal and financial restrictions keep them from acting more aggressively.

The changes include how the Department of Human Resources responds to phone calls about suspected abuse and trying to pay more attention to foster care runaways.

The state House Appropriations Committee held a hearing in Annapolis yesterday that focused on the state's response to the May 11 beating deaths of twin infant girls Emunnea and Emonney Broadway.

Police have charged the twins' 17-year-old mother, Sierra Swann, and her boyfriend, Nathaniel Broadway, 24, in the deaths. But critics say the system ignored obvious warning signs -- such as Swann's documented abuse of a previous child -- and allowed her to bring her newborns home from Johns Hopkins Hospital to a basement apartment lacking electricity or running water.

A phone call from the hospital to the Baltimore Department of Social Services after the twins' births did not trigger a visit from a state social worker, as should have happened because there was a warrant out for Swann as a runway foster child, state officials said.

"In our state, the child welfare system is facing some of the biggest challenges that I've ever seen. The death of the twins triggered some disturbing reports about child welfare services in the city," said Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the committee. "We need to have open dialogue about systems that are broken."

Floyd Blair, interim director of the state-run Baltimore Department of Social Services, said his agency has taken steps in response to the twins' deaths to make sure similar communication breakdowns don't recur.

"This case represents for us an opportunity to look at the gaps in service," Blair said. "Based on the Swann case, we are instituting systemic changes. ... We are making progress."

The agency is creating a written protocol for how to handle calls about children such as the call from Hopkins, Blair said. All such calls will be routed through a central child abuse hot line, and the "backdoor" number that was improperly used by the hospital social worker to reach a state data processing clerk will no longer take calls from people who aren't authorized state employees, Blair said.

The agency will also add staff in the screening unit that evaluates incoming reports, and it will try to do a better job of prioritizing calls and identifying runaway foster children such as Swann, Blair said.

Clerks who take calls will also be directed to transfer calls to qualified caseworkers. The social services computer worker who took the call from Hopkins Hospital in the Swann case should have referred it internally to a foster care caseworker, who could have gone out to interview Swann, said Stephen Berry, program manager for child protective services at the state Department of Human Resources.

The budget for the city Department of Social Services is set to shrink from $549 million this year to $546 million in the fiscal year starting July 1, and staffing levels are below those recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, according to state figures.

Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, told state officials that he is skeptical about the department's plans. "I don't see actions. I see nice terminology to continue thinking about actions, but I don't see actions," he said.

Del. Peter Franchot, another Montgomery Democrat, demanded to know why the agency doesn't remove -- or at least closely monitor -- children born to mothers who, like Swann, have lost previous children because of documented abuse.

State Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said that after the agency closes a child abuse case by removing a child, it cannot act on the presumption that the same parent will abuse children born later.

"You could say that the department should be proactively acting," McCabe said. "But I don't think Maryland case law says that Maryland should take a child away because something has happened in the past" to another child in the same family.

McCabe and Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, told the committee that Hopkins could have done a better job. Although the state made mistakes, too, the hospital should have pressed for more facts about Swann's background before releasing her newborn babies to her, Beilenson said.

Joanna Downer, spokeswoman for Hopkins Hospital, said yesterday: "While we believe our staff took all reasonable measures at the time, Johns Hopkins is committed to continue to work with the city and state agencies to improve the process intended to identify and protect the children of Baltimore from abuse and neglect."