Montgomery County's child abuse cases are now being examined by a specialized group of police, prosecutors and social workers who began meeting recently to discuss how the most serious cases of physical abuse should be handled.

While the three agencies that investigate child abuse from different vantage points have worked together informally for years, they say the new, systematic approach to reviewing all serious cases will ensure that more children are protected while their abusers are caught and punished.

"One of the goals is to help reduce the number of cases that might slip through the cracks . . . to try to protect these kids," said Lt. Tim Delaney, supervisor of the Montgomery County police's youth division.

The group, which has been meeting weekly since November, reviews all cases of physical abuse, allegations involving day-care facilities, suspicious deaths of children and anything involving an adult already convicted of child abuse, said prosecutor Laura Chase, supervisor of the Family Violence Unit for the Montgomery state's attorney's office.

Montgomery's handling of child abuse cases came under intense criticism in 1998, after a 5-year-old boy was found tortured in his Germantown home and an 18-month-old Wheaton girl died after her father shook her so hard that she suffered fatal bleeding in her brain. In both cases, county social workers had returned the children to their parents.

A three-month grand jury investigation prompted by those cases found that some county social workers were poorly trained and that their investigative reports were often "sketchy," "vague" or wrong.

Chase said the new group was patterned after a Child Advocacy Center in San Diego that brings together officials from different agencies, and was not formed in response to any one case.

"Everyone will think about that case for a very long time," Chase said of the 5-year-old Germantown boy. "It tugs at our heart strings. There are things we learn from every case that impact what we do, but I can't say it was that case more than any other."

The problem before, Chase and others say, stemmed from the fact that child abuse cases can become a jigsaw puzzle with different agencies examining different pieces. Sometimes the agencies shared information. Sometimes they didn't.

A social worker, for example, might have investigated a family where abuse is suspected to determine where the children should live. A police detective might have investigated the same circumstances to determine whether a crime was committed and, if so, who should be arrested.

Meanwhile, prosecutors who would have to take the case to court sometimes didn't learn about it or the available evidence until after an arrest had been made.

A social worker might have discussed a child's future with a judge in Juvenile Court while a prosecutor and police detective tried to determine whether that same child would make a good witness against the abuser in District or Circuit Court, authorities say.

Police "are primarily focused on the offender, and we're primarily focused on the child, so they may have information that's helpful for us in determining an appropriate placement for a child," said Agnes Leshner, manager of Child Welfare Services for the county. "We have experience with abusive patterns in a family that we could share with them. . . . We're trying to use everyone's expertise."

Each year, Montgomery police investigate about 100 cases of alleged physical abuse that might amount to a crime, while county social workers annually handle as many as 1,200 complaints regarding children, Delaney said.

By looking at some cases together, Delaney said, group members can use their various points of view to "identify children that we need to pay some special attention to."

For example, one agency might get a call from a neighbor concerned about not seeing a local child in a few days, while another agency gets a call from a teacher concerned that the same child is becoming withdrawn in class. Alone, neither call, on its face, might warrant immediate investigation, authorities say. But viewed together, they would spark a more serious look.

Chase said prosecutors like having a way to hear regularly from police and social workers about the cases they are taking to court. The investigators can help prosecutors evaluate the strength of the state's evidence, she said, and can give input on how well a child may testify in court.

"We want them to give us the full picture of what's going on, so we're fully informed when we make our plea offers or our charging decisions," Chase said. "Now everyone is at the table at the same time, rather than having piecemeal conversations with the prosecutor."