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Mobtown Beat

A Pattern of Failure

A new state bill seeks to make child neglect a felony

Frank Klein
Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 3/2/2010

On March 3 and March 4, prosecutors from around the state and advocates for children’s welfare will go before the General Assembly to testify on a bill to strengthen the child-neglect laws in Maryland. The bill—HB 962 in the House and SB 757 in the Senate—would amend the state’s criminal code to make child neglect, defined as “a pattern of failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the basic needs of a minor,” a felony in the state of Maryland.

Proponents of the law, which include the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association and the Maryland Emergency Nurses Association, say that Maryland is the only state in the nation without a specific child-neglect law on the books. They say HB 962 would give child-protective workers and prosecutors stronger recourse when parents may be neglecting children by depriving them of essentials such as food or shelter. But some child-welfare advocates warn that, while criminalizing neglect sounds good in theory, in practice it could tear families apart, thus causing further harm to traumatized children.

At the moment, neglect is covered in Maryland code in two ways: via child abuse laws in the state’s criminal code, which make it a felony to cause physical injury to a child as a result of cruel or inhumane treatment; and through the family law code, which allows the state to remove children “in need of assistance” from their families in some situations. Neither legal method of dealing with neglect, says Dermot Garrett, staff attorney for the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse of the National District Attorneys Association, is truly adequate to keep children safe from harm. His organization is leading the push to see that the state adds a neglect law to the criminal code.

“The bills propose that it would be a felony, with a 10-year maximum cap for patterns of behavior that threaten the physical or mental health of a child by depriving them of basic essentials, such as food or medical care,” Garrett says, adding that at the moment, Maryland has stronger definitions and penalties for animal neglect than it does for child neglect. (The state’s animal-cruelty laws cover neglect, including deprivation of food, shelter, and water, as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.)

“What we are seeking to do is define what neglect is,” Garrett says. “The vast majority of cases would still be handled through Social Services, but if a pattern of behavior threatens the child’s mental or physical health, we want the ability to prosecute those.” According to the bill, “neglect” would be defined as “a pattern or failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the basic needs of a minor,” including food, clothing, essential medical treatment, shelter, or supervision. It makes exclusions for neglect that occurs “as a result of a lack of financial resources” or “failure to provide specified medical treatment that conflicts with the parent’s or guardian’s bona fide religious beliefs and practices.”

“If the neglect that occurred was owing solely to poverty, that would be a defense,” Garrett says. “We have a religious exemption built into the bill so if it was due to religious reasons, that would be a defense . . .We also have classified a pattern of behavior, so for instance a certain onetime forgetting of medication wouldn’t be neglect.”

The Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children--an umbrella organization that includes a number of child-welfare advocates, including the Public Justice Center, Advocates for Children and Youth, and Prevent Child Abuse Maryland—has come out in opposition of HB 962/SB 757 as a “flawed” bill. According to Matthew Joseph, executive director for Advocates for Children and Youth, the problem with the bill is that criminalizing neglect prevents social workers from being able to address and resolve it. Instead, he says, advocates worry that families will be broken up and more children will be sent to foster care while cases wind through the courts.

“Generally speaking,” Joseph says, “we don’t see the value of trying to criminalize child neglect to the point where a parent could be sent to jail, therefore terminating the family. What Maryland has been trying to do is enhance family-preservation efforts and look at the causes of the neglect and work with the family to prevent it from happening in the future.”

Joseph says the coalition supports “family-centered case practice,” which emphasizes keeping parents and children together while social and child-protective service workers address problems that may be leading to neglect situations.

“There’s a much stronger case to be made for trying to preserve the family and rehabilitate the parent,” he says. “Much of the neglect taking place is due to substance abuse. So you’re saying that rather than provide substance-abuse treatment to the parent, you want the parent to sit in jail. It just doesn’t make sense. The goal of a good child-welfare system is both to protect child welfare and to preserve family. Because the best place for a child to be is with the family.”

Pam Fox, a nurse and an active member of the Maryland Emergency Nurses Association, says her organization is on board with the bill because all too often, she says, neglect is a precursor to abuse. “We are interested in injury prevention,” she says. “We want to be able to identify a family dynamic that’s not working and assist with that. It’s very difficult to invade someone’s family structure legally, and you have to have some way to do it when the situation is clear cut . . . so hopefully we can prevent child abuse and tragic cases of death. We want to be able to advocate for children who can’t speak for themselves.”

Nancy Lineman, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR), says her agency supports the bill, but “we’re going to recommend an amendment that the religious exemption should be removed.”

When asked if there was any concern about the bill’s potential to disrupt families, she says that’s always of concern to the DHR.

“Any time a child is removed from a family is deeply concerning and disruptive and a difficult time for everyone,” she says. “But our interest is to ensure the safety of children throughout the state and if they have to come into care, that’s what has to happen.”

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