The number of children who died because of abuse or neglect in Maryland increased by 50 percent from 1998 to 1999, an increase that a child advocacy group blames on overworked and inadequately trained state caseworkers.

"This is not a statistical quirk, but the tip of the iceberg--an indication of a devastating situation in which the system is overloaded," said Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for Advocates for Children and Youth. "The result is this very troubling rise in fatality."

In 1999, Maryland officially attributed the deaths of 36 children to child abuse and neglect, up from 24 in 1998 and 27 in 1997, according to the report.

The Baltimore-based nonprofit advocacy group released the fatality statistics this week as part of a report on the child welfare system.

State officials defended the agency yesterday, saying that legislatively driven changes improved its ability to identify abuse and neglect and resulted in the apparent rise in fatalities.

"Maryland [lawmakers] passed a bill last year requiring child fatality reviews and that law is going to give us the best information available," said Thomas Grazio, director of the Office of Family and Children's Services for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which is charged with investigating reported abuse.

Grazio noted that in 21 of the cases, the children and their families had not been involved with social service agencies before the children died.

Advocates argue that the new fatality review program has not been in place long enough to change the department's policies.

"I don't see where they're doing anything different yet," said Joseph. "That can't account for" the increase.

The advocates, whose study uses statistics provided by the state, note that along with the increase in deaths from abuse, there has been an increase in the number of abuse investigations. Investigated reports of child abuse and neglect in Maryland have increased steadily, from 28,000 in 1994 to 31,000 in 1999.

And yet, there have also been fewer cases where child welfare workers verified abuse. The rate at which investigators determined that abuse or neglect was "indicated" dropped from 34 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 1999, according to state data cited in the study.

"That tells you that there are serious problems in the system," said Joseph, who said local anecdotal evidence and national studies all point to a dramatic increase in child abuse over the past decade.

Joseph noted that Maryland has fallen below the average national rate at which abuse is found to be substantiated, which was 34 percent in 1997, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

"Overburdened caseworkers are finding abuse in fewer cases because that's all they can handle," he said. "Either that, or we are somehow more prone to making false reports [of abuse] here in Maryland."

Department officials say they have formed a work group to study the drop in the percentage of substantiated cases and that they are working assiduously in many of the areas highlighted in the report.

"We have talked to the advocates about a number of these issues and tried to explain improvements we have made and how we have an emphasis on the safety of children in every decision we make," Grazio said.

Others say the department has been recalcitrant and resistant to change.

"They fought like hell to kill" these reforms, said one advocate. "They have been too defensive."

Some of the issues raised in the report are likely to surface when the General Assembly reconvenes in Annapolis.

Advocates are hoping Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) will commit to spending the $15 million to $17 million earmarked last session in the budget to hire more child welfare caseworkers.

"The governor needs to implement the caseload reduction provisions of the Child Welfare Workforce Initiative of 1997," said Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the Maryland Citizen's Review Board for Children, a statewide voluntary citizens' monitoring agency assembled to oversee out-of-home placement programs for abused and neglected children.

Department officials could not give a precise number for average caseloads, saying they vary among the jurisdictions. Advocates said caseworkers have reported having as many as 34 children to monitor. Grazio said the state needs to see the results of a pilot caseload-reduction program in three counties before attacking the problem statewide.

The chief sponsor of the 1997 bill disagrees.

"We need to hire more people. We have got to get these huge caseloads down or we are going to continue to have more children abused, more deaths," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore).

Her measure and other recent reforms were driven in part by several high-profile child abuse cases, such as that of Rita Fisher, the 9-year-old Baltimore County girl who starved to death in 1997.

ABUSE, NEGLECT IN MARYLAND

Despite an increasing number of child abuse and neglect deaths in Maryland, statistics show that child welfare workers are verifying abuse in fewer cases.

Maryland fatalities due to child abuse and neglect

`97: 27

`98: 24

`99: 36

Percentage of cases where child abuse or neglect is substantiated

`94: 34%

`95: 33%

`96: 31%

`97: 29%

`98: 25%

`99: 26%

U.S. avg. 1997: 34%

SOURCE: Maryland Department of Human Resources