Child welfare head tries to improve agency's image

When Christopher J. McCabe stood at the microphone of a recent nationally televised news conference, Maryland's highest child welfare official mentioned his boss' name, introduced his colleagues and spoke vaguely about his agency's work.

The secretary of the Department of Human Resources barely mentioned the fate of an abandoned 3-year-old, even as CNN and other news outlets interrupted regular programming in hopes of hearing more details on the girl known as Courtney from Brooklyn.

To advocates for children's welfare, that night was emblematic of McCabe's tenure.

"DSS can't figure out who's on first base. It's pathetic," said Susan Leviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Here we are in Maryland, which is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, and this is what we're known for."

Since the former Howard County state senator took office in February last year, his agency has repeatedly been thrust into the spotlight for deaths of abused children - deaths that some say might have been preventable had social services workers acted differently.

Overseeing 7,000 employees in 24 social service departments across the state, McCabe has a budget of $1.5 billion for child welfare, as well as services for the elderly and poor.

McCabe, a 48-year-old Republican, is aware of his agency's tarnished image and said he is working hard to regain the public's trust.

"We want to demonstrate to people that we are improving," McCabe said. "In our work, we can be batting 0.999 and have one failure and be perceived as a total failure."

When asked whether that was his agency's batting average, he conceded, "I don't think anybody is batting 0.999 in this work."

`Broken' system

Even McCabe's critics say he's a nice guy who cares about children. But they insist the agency needs more.

"Caring isn't enough," Leviton said. "You have to have the resources to do it, and I don't think he does. You need someone to get in there and say, `The system is broken, and I'm going to fix it.' That's hard in this administration because you're supposed to say, `Everything's fine.'"

McCabe was appointed by his friend Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. McCabe said Ehrlich reminds him at times that nobody else asked for the job.

In 2002, 33 children died as a result of abuse, pushing Maryland over the national average of 1.98 child-abuse deaths per 100,000 children, to 2.4 per 100,000. The department investigated nearly 33,000 incidents of child abuse across the state in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

"Frankly, it's a daunting task we have," McCabe said. "We are dealing with fragile families and individuals who are relying on the government at a vulnerable time in their lives. We can't mend families."

A statement released by Ehrlich's office said the governor has known McCabe personally and professionally for many years and has confidence in his ability to lead the agency.

"It's no secret that the Department of Human Resources is a highly scrutinized agency. However, Chris McCabe remains calm under pressure, often highlighting areas of improvement in the agency," the statement said. "The mission of DHR is both critical and clear: To continue to improve and save the lives of Maryland families. Chris McCabe is the right person to carry out this mission."

As secretary of the department, McCabe said he is focusing on three main areas: improving working conditions for case workers, bridging the disconnect between his office and the local departments around the state, and improving Baltimore's office.

McCabe has invested about $1 million in upgrading computers and working conditions in Baltimore, and has hired 50 workers.

"I have been as engaged in Baltimore City Department of Social Services as a secretary can be," he said.

Lately, that's meant dealing with tragedy after tragedy, often complicated by flaws in the child welfare system.

Communications gap

The most recent was two weeks ago, when twin infant girls were killed in the basement of a vacant Northeast Baltimore rowhouse.

Authorities have since identified a major communication gap that might have contributed to the case.

Sierra Swann, the teenage mother of the twins, was known to Social Services as a foster care runaway from whom another child had been taken because of abuse and neglect. She was allowed to leave the hospital with her newborn girls, Emonney and Emunnea Broadway, even after a hospital social worker called the state to inquire about Swann. Swann and her boyfriend, Nathaniel Broadway, have been charged with murder.

In the aftermath, McCabe suggested changes to the child welfare system, including forming a work group with agency heads to discuss policy. McCabe would not say who would be on the group, when it would meet or exactly what it would discuss.

That move became political when he decided on the changes with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, a political nemesis of Mayor Martin O'Malley, one of the state's Democratic leaders.

Legal battle

O'Malley has been in a legal battle for months with Ehrlich over who should lead Baltimore's Department of Social Services.

O'Malley has said that interim Director Floyd Blair is not qualified to run the department. McCabe and Ehrlich say he is.

So when McCabe came under fire for the department's involvement in the twins case, he sought cover in Jessamy, an official who has also sparred with O'Malley.

"DSS is perceived as being isolated," McCabe said. "If it is perceived that we're not connected, that's not a good thing."

But the alliance drew criticism from many, including Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and ally of O'Malley's.

"Why reinvent the wheel and delay things to begin a new group - which apparently is very nebulous, to say the least?" Rosenberg said. "Why meet with someone who is not on good terms with the mayor? The burden is doubly on him to move with some alacrity to reform the process."

But McCabe said he is pleased to work with Jessamy on the issue.

"I appreciate the state's attorney for showing we are working with partners," he said.

`Committed individual'

McCabe was a state senator for 10 years and lives with his wife, Deidre - a former Sun reporter - and their four children. He said he was drawn to public service because of his faith.

"My Catholic faith instructed me that there was a personal obligation," McCabe said. "If you're given certain gifts, you are to identify what they are and use them to help others."

People who know him from the state Senate say he is a man of principles who will take a stand even if it's unpopular.

"He's a very committed individual. He takes his responsibility very seriously," said Martin Madden, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission and a former Republican state senator from Howard.

McCabe left the Senate soon after campaigning for George W. Bush in the latter's presidential race, tapped by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to lead the federal department's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

He came back to Maryland after a vigorous campaign for Ehrlich.

McCabe said he and Ehrlich met at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas.

As a senator, he focused on such issues as education. His biography lists his involvement in dozens of groups, including the Boy Scouts.

While in the Senate, he was the director of development for the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where he worked as a fund-raiser.

He said he became interested in issues related to children in 1981, when he was appointed to Howard County's first Foster Care Review Board.

McCabe said he feels sad every time a child is killed but is able to put the tragedies in perspective.

"These are happening all over the country," McCabe said. "But there's no excuse for it. There's no excuse for parents harming their children."