Montgomery County will became one of the first jurisdictions in Maryland to implement a two-track system for responding to child abuse allegations, taking a softer tact for those cases deemed low-risk, and changing the way thousands of families interact with the child welfare system, officials said Monday.
Under the current system, for example, parents who leave a child home alone because they didn’t have a babysitter are added to a child abuse registry if found at fault. Appearing on the registry could have a variety of consequences, from not being hired for jobs involving children to being barred from chaperoning a school trip.
In the new system, such parents would be given a “low-risk” response. Instead of enacting harsh disciplinary measures, social workers would provide training— or find other resources— to help them be better parents.
“What we want to do is get these families help over time, so they can take care of their children,” said Agnes Leshner, director of Montgomery’ County’s child welfare department. “When we do an investigation, it can make it seem like we are trying to fight the parents.”
The plan will be rolled out across the state in five phases over the next year.Other counties involved in the initial phase are Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett.
The District started a similar program about two years ago. Virginia has used a similar system for a decade.
In Montgomery County there were nearly 3,000 child abuse investigations last year, ranging from from children being left home alone to cases of physical and sexual abuse.
In Prince George’s, there were about 3,200 investigations, according to state data.
Of the 28,000 cases of child abuse statewide last year, nearly 60 percent were unsubstantiated or involved neglect — things that would likely be handled differently with the new system.
“One size does not fit all,” said Ted Dallas, Maryland secretary for human services. “This is something that’s been a long time coming. . .And it will have an impact in ways we don’t fully understand how.”