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Montgomery Co. offers 2 tracks on abuse investigations

ROCKVILLE — The number of child abuse and neglect investigations in Montgomery County has risen by 12 percent over the last two years — even as the number of cases statewide remained stable, county data show.

The uptick — from just shy of 2,600 cases in 2010 to nearly 3,000 in 2012 — is likely the result of increased stress on families due to the recession and increased public vigilance after the county’s efforts to raise awareness about the signs of abuse, according to Agnes Leshner, director of the county’s child welfare services.

But the rise also amplified concern about how to best handle investigations, a problem which county and state officials vowed last week to address.

Montgomery was named one of the first jurisdictions in the state to implement a two-track system for responding to child abuse allegations, taking a softer approach for those cases deemed low-risk. Virginia and the District of Columbia have already implemented similar systems.

Currently in Maryland, for example, parents who violate state law by leaving a child under the age of 8 home alone because they didn’t have a baby sitter, are added to a child abuse registry if found at fault. Appearing on the registry could have a variety of consequences, from not being hired for jobs involving children to being barred from chaperoning a school trip.

Under the new system, such parents would be given a “low-risk” response. Instead of enacting harsh disciplinary measures, social workers would provide training — or find other resources — to help them be better parents.

“What we want to do is get these families help over time, so they can take care of their children,” Leshner said. “When we do an investigation, it can make it seem like we are trying to fight the parents.”

High-risk investigations, including cases of sex abuse or continued physical abuse, will be handled as they’ve always been. That process includes interviews with parents and teachers, and might result in the agency placing the child in foster care.

Maryland is beginning implementation with counties in the western part of the state. Also included are Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett. Based on the experiences of the five jurisdictions, state officials aim to extend this “alternative response” method to the rest of state over the next year.

The result could transform how thousands of families throughout the state interact with the child welfare system, said Ted Dallas, the state’s secretary for human resources.

Nearly 28,000 investigations are conducted every year throughout the state, data show. But three out of every five are unsubstantiated or deal with issues of neglect — things that would likely qualify as “low-risk” cases.

From Dallas’s perspective, the idea of offering services to families — as opposed to threatening the removal of their children — falls more in line with a national effort to keep children out of the foster system for as long as possible.

“One size does not fit all,” Dallas said. “This is something that’s been a long time coming … And it will have an impact in ways we don’t fully understand.”

At least 20 states, including Virginia and the district, currently use the tiered-response system.

Following stricter enforcement of a law mandating that teachers report truant students to child protection services, the district itself saw a 17 percent increase in the number of referrals it received over the past two years, from 6,203 to 7,303.

Brenda Donald, the director of the child and family services agency in the district, said her department was able to tailor services to families better when they enacted a multi-tiered response.

“It just makes a lot more sense,” Donald said.

In Montgomery, the number of calls reporting child abuse began skyrocketing in the wake of the 2011 Penn State sex abuse scandal, said Wendy Grier, who is Montgomery’s supervisor for child welfare projects.

More neighbors started reporting suspicious behavior, as did more teachers and nonprofit workers. It led to the county giving presentations three times a month about warning signs of abuse, contributing to 6,533 reports of abuse last year, a 14 percent increase from 2010.

When those reports were so egregious they warranted further investigation — as they do about 45 percent of the time in Montgomery — caseworkers discovered cases of molestation and continued physical assault. But they also saw increases in the number of children left home because their parents had to take on night shifts — or parents who were having difficulty paying their bills who, in a moment of frustration, might have hit their child.

Those sorts of issues might require therapy or financial assistance rather than a court order, said Jimmy Venza, who is associate director of the Reginald S. Lourie Center. That kind of help allows for parents to learn to be better parents.

“Sometimes, parents just get overwhelmed,” Venza said. “And we understand that if we provide support for caregivers and focus on their relationships, you can make an impact and give them the chance to grow.”

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