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Maryland must release social services records for Malachi Lawson

Melissa Johnson, sister of Shatika Lawson, says she wonders what she missed

Far too many questions still exist about the death of Malachi Lawson, the four-year-old who police say died at the hands of his mother and her partner and was then discarded haphazardly into a city dumpster.

How exactly is a child put in water so hot that his skin burns off and floats to the surface? And how did no one notice until they happened to look into the tub? Was he not screaming or thrashing around wildly from the pain? How does a mother who loves their child throw him away like trash?

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Then the most nagging question of all. Should young Malachi have even been in the care of his mother?

It’s telling that, according to the charging documents, Alicia Lawson, 25 and Shatika Lawson, 40, decided to treat the boy’s burns at home rather than take him to a hospital because they feared he would be taken from their care. (Ms. Lawson’s attorney told The Sun that his client couldn’t take the child to the doctor because she wasn’t the legal guardian. But no emergency room would deny care to a child suffering from such severe injuries.) They had a history with child protective services, so they didn’t seek help. Instead, the boy suffered at home until he was found dead in a pool of liquid.

Sun reporters Pamela Wood and McKenna Oxenden have pushed the Maryland Department of Human Services and The Baltimore City Department of Social Services for a more detailed account of the family’s history with their agencies but have been told no records would be released until an investigation is completed. The reporters asked for the number of complaints (if any) about Malachi’s condition or care, the general nature of any complaints, a description of any actions taken by the agencies and whether any review or investigation about how Malachi’s case was handled.

We contend that human services and social services have the authority under state code to release such information, even while an investigation is ongoing, and should do so sooner rather than later.

Maryland Human Services Code 1-203 states some information involving the fatality of a child can be released if the state’s attorney’s determines it would not “jeopardize or prejudice a related investigation or prosecution.”

Information that can be released includes the name of the child, the date of the abuse or neglect incidents and prior or follow-up reports, reports of any prior neglect or abuse, any services provided to the child and family members, the number of referrals for professional services and any previous adjudication for the child, sibling of the child or any other child in the house.

The state can also release the status of any case involving the child that was open at the time of the fatality and a summary of the facts of the death, including the cause of death reported by the medical examiner.

Other information is protected by the law, and we respect that. For one, the state doesn’t have to identify the person who made the report or release the name of a child, or their siblings and parents, who almost died from neglect.

Releasing the information that is discloseable wouldn’t jeopardize of prejudice the criminal case against the parents any more than the already available information does. As public agencies, the human services and social services departments have an obligation to make it public, regardless of whether it reflects well or poorly on them. If they haven’t already, the two agencies should confer with State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office, which should grant release of the information.

If anything, the information will point out if there were gaps in the system that failed Malachi. We understand that social services agencies do what they can to keep a child with his or her parents. But maybe there were warnings signs that this might not be such a good idea. Perhaps there are improvements that can be made in the system. Or maybe social services did everything by the book and at the end of the day this was a tragic accident. We don’t know with the limited information that has been provided.

What we don’t want is for the of this little boy’s life and tragic death to be forgotten. He was said to have an infectious smile and a bright spirit. The photos of him with glasses too big for his face and missing front teeth are enough to warm anybody’s heart. Hopefully telling Malachi’s story will help prevent other children from suffering the same sad fate.

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