WHY WAS Anayah Williams returned to her parents after someone in her home had fractured her skull and broken one of her ribs? That’s been the haunting question in Frederick County ever since the 21-month-old girl was killed, allegedly beaten by her father, just three weeks after being returned from foster care to her biological parents. Nothing can undo the terrible death of this little girl, but it is reassuring that officials are trying to come up with an answer that might help to prevent future tragedies.

After the girl’s March 14 death, Maryland Secretary of Human Resources Ted Dallas promised a thorough review. “Did human error or a breakdown in the system contribute?” Mr. Dallas wrote in a letter to this page. Officials talked to case workers and supervisors, worked with investigators and concluded that the problem centered on the inflexibility of a state law governing the process of reunifying children in foster care with their families. States are required under federal law to show reasonable efforts to preserve and reunite families, and reunification must be considered as the first choice after an exit from foster care.

That bias toward reunification makes sense, but the law should allow for common-sense exceptions. The circumstances of Anayah’s case did not meet Maryland’s criteria for social workers to seek a waiver of her return to her biological parents. There was insufficient evidence to show who was responsible for the 2012 injury that landed her in foster care, and current law doesn’t allow a waiver unless there has been a conviction. The Maryland statute also contains problematic language about the abuse being “chronic.” Social workers tried to do their best under these constraints, according to Mr. Dallas, who noted they provided hundreds of hours of services to the parents in the 16 months before Anayah was returned to them.

As a result of the review that included an examination of laws in other states, the department is seeking a change in Maryland law that would add protections and give case workers more flexibility. Mr. Dallas has been discussing the proposal this summer with local advocates and legislators. He told us some tweaks may be needed before the final legislation is drafted, but he is hopeful of approval in next year’s General Assembly. Meanwhile, both of Anayah’s parents are in jail, awaiting trial on charges connected to her death.

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The Post’s View: Could Anayah Williams’s tragic death been avoided?