The apparent beating death of a 9-year-old Baltimore girl last month has prompted key administrative changes at the Baltimore Department of Social Services, which had received five complaints over five years alleging that the child had been neglected or abused at home.
Myeshia Jenkins' bruised and battered body was discovered March 6 by a state highway crew in a brushy area of Prince George's County about 20 feet from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway after she had been reported missing from an Anne Arundel County shopping mall. Her mother, Paulette Jenkins, 27, who had made a television appeal for the return of the girl, and the mother's boyfriend, Houston Lanteon, 34, were charged with first-degree murder in the case.
Police said at the time that they believed that the girl was beaten to death with belts and fists at the family's home in the Fairfield section of Baltimore. The medical examiner ruled that she died from "blunt trauma" blows to the body.
The case prompted a review of the city social services department by the Maryland Department of Human Resources. State officials found that, at one point, members of Myeshia's family were referred to a counseling program at a city mental health agency. But by the time of the girl's death the city department was preparing to end its monitoring of the Jenkins family, a decision that a state review of the case said was based on inadequate communication between city agencies.
Ruth Massinga, secretary of the state Human Resources Department, said findings in the review raised several concerns that have prompted changes in the agency's method of operation, including mandatory reviews by supervisors and division chiefs of all cases that have been active for one year. Top priority will be given to cases involving multiple complaints, she said.
"In retrospect," the secretary said in a prepared statement, "it is clear that no one fully appreciated the degree to which this child was at risk, neither the staff in the [Baltimore] department or other professionals who saw Myeshia.
No disciplinary action was taken against human resources employes, officials said.
The agency does not usually release information concerning social service cases because of Maryland's privacy laws, said department spokesman Wanda Dobson. The agency released parts of the state review of the Myeshia Jenkins case -- which was reported in the Baltimore Sun -- because it was not considered a state record, she said.
The Baltimore Department of Social Services received the first allegation concerning Myeshia's treatment in June 1979, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Nancy Shuger said last week. Three complaints were made in the first three months of 1983, she said, and the last was made in March 1984. Caseworkers visited the Jenkins home after each of the complaints, as state law requires, she said.
In one of those instances, Shuger said, the caseworker was not aware of the previous allegations of abuse or neglect. On another occasion, she said, the caseworker did not know of Lanteon's relationship with Paulette Jenkins. Lanteon and Jenkins lived together, according to police.
Three of the complaints, Shuger said, resulted in the agency determining that no action was necessary. Twice the caseworkers decided the family needed support services, she said, and they were referred to a city counseling program in 1984.
To a large degree, the problems with the city agency's handling of the case were attributable to the caseloads of social workers in the Continuing Services unit, Massinga said. Each of the unit's 43 staff members currently handles about 47 cases. That caseload will be reduced to 36 by transferring jobs from other units, she said. It will be reduced further, she added, because of an additional 15 positions approved for the next fiscal year by the state legislature.
At the time of Myeshia's death, Shuger said, the Baltimore Department of Social Services was preparing to close her case.
That decision was based, at least in part, on poor communication between the department and the mental health facility providing the family members with counseling, Shuger said.
Massinga said that better communication between the agencies might have "shed more light on the family's situation."