With slot machines in Maryland apparently near death, what now?

For 17 months, the slots issue has held a near-monopoly on public attention in Maryland. Medical malpractice has popped up occasionally as an issue, but slots have ruled the daily discussion.

That isn't unusual. Governments everywhere seem to have trouble focusing on more than one big issue at a time. Take the national focus on Iraq. When was the last time you heard about the Social Security deficit or Medicare? These issues suddenly didn't become unimportant, just ignored.

Now that the slots tidal wave finally is subsiding in Maryland, what issue has the state been ignoring?

My vote goes to its citizens who can't vote: the thousands of kids in Maryland who are at risk of serious abuse or death. I'm talking about the kind of death suffered by one-month-old twins Emunnea and Emonney Broadway in May. Although their story was widely reported in their hometown of Baltimore, it was barely noticed in the Washington area.

The twins were born to Sierra Swann, 17, a high school dropout and a foster-care runaway. Swann's mother is a recovering crack addict; her father is absent. The twins' father, Nathaniel Broadway, 24, is an unemployed petty criminal whose own father died of a drug overdose.

Swann already had a daughter, Nairra, 2. Last year Nairra was found undernourished, with bite marks on her right cheek, burn marks on her shoulders and her left eye swollen shut. When Social Services came to check on Nairra, they found Swann hiding the toddler behind a house under some bushes. Reportedly, Social Services was told then that Swann was pregnant with twins. Nairra was placed in foster care on Dec. 12.

In April Swann gave birth to one twin before reaching the hospital. Doctors found the baby in the leg of her sweatpants. Her other baby was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Swann had no prenatal care. She said she "slept through most appointments." At the hospital, the twins' father showed up and left Swann with a swollen lip.

Because Swann's 2-year-old had been taken from her, Hopkins was told by Social Services that the case "was closed," but Swann should have been in the reporting system twice -- once as a foster-care runaway and once for her daughter, Nairra.

A month after their birth, the twin girls, Emunnea and Emonney Broadway, were found dead. Their small bodies were reportedly bruised, battered and malnourished. Autopsies indicated fractured skulls and ribs. They had been living in the basement of a boarded-up row house without electricity or a toilet.

Swann and her boyfriend now are in jail, charged with first-degree murder. They have denied harming the children. Swann says she doesn't know how the babies got so many bruises and broken bones. At the time of their deaths, the infants weighed two pounds less than at the time of their birth.

Johns Hopkins says it encounters 900 cases of suspected child abuse each year. The total abuse picture is much larger, however: Baltimore City has an estimated 2,200 child abuse cases each year. This summer, a Department of Social Services spokesman complained that this is too many children to monitor. So what is the right number?

Sadly, the death of the Broadway twins could not be called an aberration.

In Maryland, the number of children killed by a parent or guardian is 25 percent higher than the national average. Meanwhile, Social Services reports that it fails to visit 24 percent of its foster-care families. Meanwhile, Social Services has many vacancies because of budget cuts. And the money paid to foster care families hasn't been raised in 13 years.

Political leaders shouldn't be able to sleep at night until they are satisfied this won't happen again. Unfortunately, social services aren't an issue most swing voters care about, so politicians apparently are sleeping just fine. Pollsters certainly wouldn't recommend the issue to their clients.

But the short lives of the Broadway sisters should challenge Maryland. What kind of state do we live in?

Emunnea and Emonney Broadway had no choice on whether to live and die in a hovel in Baltimore. But Maryland can choose the amount of resources and leadership to put into making sure that no other babies die in a similar way.

Future Broadway twins are out there, at risk of death in their own homes. They don't vote. They can't hire lobbyists. They can't buy $1,000 fundraiser tickets. But their survival depends upon their government.

We can talk about "safety nets" all we want, but these babies won't be safe without an effective social services department -- and, yes, that means more and better government.

Maryland has lots of big issues other than slots. But it should start with Emunnea and Emonney and making sure this kind of tragedy doesn't continue to happen in Maryland.

The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is tmaloney@jgllaw.com.