ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s system of dealing with children’s issues is failing those it purports to protect, said the sponsor of several reform bills at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.
“I think it’s broken,” said Delegate Joan B. Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, who sponsored five of the 18 bills dealing with child abuse, support and custody, spanning from birth to the age of majority, that the panel debated.
The death of a 20-month-old St. Mary’s County boy in February 2000 prompted one of her bills, which would make a death occurring during child abuse a first-degree offense.
A stomp on the little boy’s abdomen by the mother’s boyfriend lacerated the boy’s liver and separated his stomach from his small intestine, according to a letter the boy’s father wrote to the committee.
More than 40 bruises were noted on his body, including a shoe imprint on the toddler’s stomach.
In written testimony presented to the committee by Pitkin’s legislative aide, Eric Horridge of Texas described his son’s tragic death and his many calls to the Department of Social Services.
“The negligence of DSS,” Horridge wrote, “should be made criminal and the caseworker involved should be held accountable in my little boy’s death.”
Pitkin’s bill would do just that. In addition to increasing the severity of the crime of death by child abuse, human service workers could be subject to criminal charges if they investigated a case where the alleged abuser is later found guilty of murdering the child.
“That’s absurd,” said Steve Buckingham, lobbyist for the Maryland Legislative Council of Social Workers.
Social workers have limited resources and too many cases, Buckingham said. They are “trying to do the best they can.”
If this legislation passes, Social Services Executive Director Linda E. Mouzon of the Department of Human Resources said she is concerned social workers will be afraid to work with families and more children will be put in foster care.
Several children’s advocacy groups said they would support the bill if that section were deleted.
The committee also heard identical bills making it a crime for failing to report child abuse for those professionals required to do so. Maryland is one of five states without criminal penalties for failure to report. The bills add $1,000 in fines for failing to report.
Delegate Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George’s, sponsored one, and the Judiciary Committee the other.
Some professionals may have their license suspended or revoked by their licensing or certification boards, but that’s not happening, said Ellen Mugmon, legislative chairwoman for the State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.
But Buckingham said, “the system hasn’t been given a chance to work,” if boards aren’t notified they can’t do anything.
It makes “more sense,” he said, “to mandate that license boards be notified.”
The Office of the Public Defender opposed the bills, saying the language was too vague, said Vanita M. Taylor, chief attorney of Child In Need of Assistance Division.
“If it’s going to be criminalized it needs to be clear,” Taylor said. Stating that professionals “who have reason to believe” abuse or neglect occurred is not definitive, she said.
The panel continued well into the evening discussing the other bills, including measures to extend the time a child could receive support from a parent, to make separate crimes of child abuse and child sexual abuse and to increase penalties for child abuse of younger children.
– 30 – CNS 3-5-02