ANNAPOLIS – When Christine Bartlett read about the abuse of 5-year-old Richard Holmes, she wondered if she could have been responsible in some way for what happened.
The boy had spent most of his life under the supervision of Montgomery County Child Welfare Services, but was returned in 1996 to the father who was convicted of neglecting him three years earlier.
After he was handed over to Alan Holmes and his live-in girlfriend, Alba Ingrid Scarpelli, Richard was imprisoned, tethered with a cat leash and forced to ingest whiskey and hot peppers.
“I thought, did my board review this and send the child back” to his abusive home, said Bartlett, a volunteer member of the state’s Foster Care Review Board.
The records showed no.
Over a two-year period, the local review board that handled Richard’s case consistently rejected county social workers’ plans to place Richard with his family. The recommendations of the social workers and the review board were passed on Montgomery Juvenile Court Judge Lee Sislen, who decided to put Richard back with his family.
Once he was placed with his family, he was out of the review board’s purview.
But Bartlett, who did not serve on the review board that handled Richard’s case, was hardly comforted by what she learned.
She wrote state lawmakers, asking them to strengthen the state’s Foster Care Review Board, whose 400 citizen volunteers review “permanency plans” for about 8,400 children in foster care.
Her letter led Dels. Sharon Grosfeld and Nancy Kopp, D- Montgomery, to file a bill that would require judges to consider a review board’s permanency plan recommendations. It would also allow the state’s 62 boards to review cases of “kinship care,” when a child is provisionally placed with a relative, as Richard was.
But placement decisions are deceptively complex, notes Linda Spears, director of child protective services for the Child Welfare League of America. The national advocacy organization, which is reviewing Montgomery County’s child protection services, also took an informal look at the handling of Richard’s case.
“I think it’s a mistake to think changing foster care review would necessarily prevent Richard Holmes from happening,” said Spears.
“The biggest problem in this case is the nature of collaboration … how is it that people work together, make decisions together and bring the best information about the family together a the same time?”
Spears does feel that foster care review boards, which operate in about half of the states, provide a useful “check and balance” between state agencies and courts. But she feels more systemic problems, such the burdens put on caseworkers, need greater attention.
“Workers carry the responsibility for making all of the permanency and safety decisions for kids,” she said.
“They have input from a host of other agencies, but they don’t have the range of resources to make the best decisions,” said Spears, who called Richard’s caseworkers “very confused” about what was best for the child.
Bartlett would not discuss the specifics of Richard’s case. But she said the running dispute between the review board and Child Welfare Services over Richard’s placement should have signaled to judges that there could be problems ahead for the boy and that the review board should have stayed involved.
Since the case hit the headlines, Scarpelli has been convicted of first-degree assault, child abuse and conspiracy and was sentenced Feb. 4 to 18 months in prison. Alan Holmes has pleaded guilty to child abuse and will be sentenced Feb. 27.
Experts agree that evaluating the stability of a family is difficult and that too much is expected of caseworkers, who may carry more than double the caseload that Spears says is manageable.
Bartlett and Charles Cooper, administrator of the Foster Care Review Board, acknowledge that Grosfeld’s bill is no magic fix for a complex system charged with making difficult decisions. Cooper said the state board has joined with other child advocacy groups to back other legislation this session to improve standards and support for child care workers.
Bartlett, a lawyer and American University instructor, said she is proud to have prompted the bill. She has spent five years reviewing cases of neglected and abused children for the board.
“As much as we like to think there are easy answers … most of these cases are very difficult. That’s what has surprised me the most,” Bartlett said.
“I can’t say the (Child Welfare Service) department made a horrible mistake … but that’s why we need these independent reviews.”