Social services agency spokespersons expressed dismay yesterday at a decision last week by a D.C. Superior Court judge to take custody of a 5-year-old boy who appeared to have needle marks on his arm and unexplained traces of barbiturates in his blood.
But city police, who obtained a court order to place the child in a foster home pending trial of his mother for neglect, strongly defended the action, saying it was the only way to protet the child, whose mother left the courtroom in tears calling the incident "ridiculous and stupid."
"The child's right to be protected from harm is always paramount . . . . But, nevertheless, I'm surprised," said Rae Gummell, vice president of Children's Rights, Inc., a national child advocacy group.
"This sounds like a case of overreaction on the part of police, schools and social service agencies. It's been our experience that when it's time to go through police and social service agencies, it's very hard to get them involved in domestic situations. This is a very quick reaction and it sounds a little too fast and too heavy," she said.
Sgt. Robert Seguin of the police department's youth division cited police authority to take into custody children suspected of being victims of children abuse and neglect.
"Our first concern is the safety of the child," he said. "We have too many children ending up dead, enough to make us keenly aware that a minor injury doesn't mean that the second time around it won't be more serious.
"To take a child from its parents is not an easy decision to make. It's traumatic. It takes a lot of understanding, it's not just that the police go out and snatch somebody because of an article in the Post."
Seguin's reference was to a Sept. 28 article in The Washington Post describing the heroin addiction of an 8-year-old Southeast Washington youth identified only as Jimmy. D.C. police searched for the child, but never found him.
The child's mother, Mary Thompson, said after the trial that concern over the Jimmy case contributed to what she considered improper action by Judge Sylvia Bacon, who cited police testimony when she ordered the child to be kept in court custody until the outcome of Thompson's trial, set for Jan. 6.
The child came to the attention of authorities after he told a teacher at Parkview elementary school in Northwest Washington that a doctor had stuck needles in his arm and showed the teacher the marks.
School officials called social workers, who subsequently summoned police. Fearing that the marks were signs of drug injections, police ordered blood tests to be taken. They tests found traces of two barbiturates, amobarbital and secobarbital, in the child's blood. Both drugs are common in some children's medicine, but not in the brand of cough syrup that Thompson said was the only drug she had knowledge of her son receiving.
Social services representatives interviewed late last week said they considered Bacon's decision a "close call."
On the one hand, teachers were alarmed over the appearance of mysterious needle marks on the arm of a student whose classroom behavior was described as erratic and police were disturbed by the traces of drugs in the child's blood.
On the other hand, the mother insisted that the marks were caused by a mandatory blood and tuberculin skin test administered three weeks earlier and said she was as baffled as anyone by the results of the tests. [An attending pediatrician at D.C. General Hospital said the marks on the child's arms could have been injection sites but probably were not.]
Moreover, although the child attended a public school in Washington, his mother is a resident of Silver Spring and brings the child to Parkview, located at Warder and Newton streets NW, because the school is near a day care center that another of her children attend.
Given that the kid is a Maryland resident, given what they [the Corporation Counsel's office] had at the time and what was suspected might be the case," one source familiar with the proceedings said, "if you declined to petition [request the judge to have the court retain child custody] the kid goes home. That might be the right thing in the final analysis, but based on the facts at the time, it possibly would be placing the kid in jeopardy.
"You really don't know if the kid is being shot up or abused, but certainly indications are that it might be by somebody."
Some social workers interviewed questioned the ability of police officers to make judgments in the case and reiterated that action may have been taken too swiftly.
"Here's an instance where a child says something to a teacher and bang! He's out of the house," said Gummell of Children's Rights, Inc. "D.C.'s protective services usually are very cautious. You have to prove something to them thoroughly before they'll act. The swiftness with which they zapped this child into custody is rare."
Joan Danzansky, director of a crisis counseling service called Families and Children in Trouble, added "The police are empowered to do it [take a child our of the home] but it is unusual. In most cases, only a small minority of these children are ever removed from their homes -- the whole idea is to protect the child and help the parent. But I'm not familiar with a great number of cases where the child is actually taken away."
Mary Thompson, the mother, and her boyfriend, Terry Ferguson, first spent an uneasy weekend awaiting the results of an investigation that could result in the return of the child that was taken from them the day before Thanksgiving -- or being found guilty of child neglect.
"What Thanksgiving? There is nothing for us to be thankful for," said Ferguson, 25 who often transports handicapped children as a driver for the Montgomery County health department, in a telephone interview yesterday.
"I feel sick. I feel like I'm in a nightmare," he said. "They were accusing me of 'shooting up' the kid until they found out where I worked, now they are trying to cover their tracks. I'm so mad, so upset. But I've worked for the city and I know city hall will never admit a mistake."
There are several layers of insulation with the court system to ensure that a child's rights are not violated, according to city officials. In most cases, police take their cases first to social workers who take them to the Corporation Counsel's office. In other cases, police go directly to the Corporation Counsel's office.
During the first six months of this year, 265 child abuse and neglect cases were reported to the court. About half of them were referred by police, and the remainder split between school officials and social workers.
Sixty-four of the 265 were dropped because of insufficient evidence. Of the 21 cases that went to trial, virtually all resulted in a finding of neglect or abuse. Most of the cases were settled with agreements between the parents and the court.
"The thinking has changed in the last few years since the community has become more aware of child abuse," said Sgt. Seguin. "There used to be a feeling that we should try to keep the family together, and we agree that the best environment is with the family.
"But when a child is being victimized to the point of abuse, neglect or death, then we should stop it, or at least examine such a suspicion before saying it's a family problem that we shouldn't get involved in, and that the child should stay at home."
Seguin said the Thompson case "had nothing to do with the Jimmy case. It's uncommon to see needle marks on a child. Based on the Jimmy case, some would think half the population under ten was running around with track marks."
"We asked the doctors, the parents and the hospitals that we had an unexplained injury to the child. The medical opinion was that there were indeed needle marks. The child had a foreign substance in its body. We have to protect that child. The court in this case thought we should take the child."
Audrey Rowe, director of the city's social services administration of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said, "Some kids are living in absolutely horrible situations and it seems to me the only question is doing everything possible to move more quickly in terminating the child [taking him from the family] or giving the family necessary support to keep the child."