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Child abuse prevention symposium brings dark issues to the light

January 26, 2008|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

HAGERSTOWN -- It's not exactly the stuff leisurely weekend plans are made of -- spending a Saturday morning in a hotel conference room pondering the decidedly gut-wrenching issue of child abuse.

Yet nearly 80 people from Washington County and areas extending to Carlisle, Pa., Baltimore and Washington D.C., came together Saturday at the Sleep Inn in Hagerstown to do just that.

Mid-Atlantic Exchange Clubs Foundation for the Prevention of Child Abuse coordinated the symposium after foundation member Mary Jo Ashburn alerted the group to a high incidence of child abuse in Washington County. Foundation Chairman Russel Sutton said the group wanted to provide a forum where child abuse prevention advocates from across the board would have an opportunity to collectively address pertinent issues.

"We wanted to hold a conversation among social workers, teachers, day-care workers, health-care providers, concerned citizens, the whole nine yards," Sutton said. "We wanted to give them a chance to get together and say, 'Why'd that perpetrator only get a slap on the wrist?'"

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The foundation assembled a panel of speakers representing judicial, medical, social service and law enforcement agencies. The county's delegates to the Maryland General Assembly were unable to attend, but Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, sent a letter to the foundation on behalf of the delegation expressing its interest and support.

David Engle, director of the Washington County Department of Social Services, said the county has the fourth highest rate of "indicated" cases of abuse or neglect in the state. "Indicated" means that an investigation has resulted in a preponderance of evidence suggesting abuse, as opposed to cases that are "unsubstantiated" because not enough evidence has been found, or "ruled out" because abuse is not evident.

"We're very conservative in our approach to child protection," Engle said. "If we make a mistake, it's going to be in the best interest of the child. We would rather investigate 100 false leads than miss one true case."

Shane Blankenship, a detective with the Hagerstown Police Department, credited the Washington County Child Advocacy Center, also known as Safe Place, with leading Washington County to a progressive approach toward prevention and response to abuse cases.

Blankenship said a concerning trend is the increasing number of children living in a home with someone who is listed on the registry of sexual offenders. For example, there are situations in which a single mother begins dating a sexual offender, then the offender moves into the home with the mother and her children.

Gina Cirincion, assistant state's attorney for Washington County, addressed what she views as Maryland's inadequate legislation regarding criminal neglect. She said existing law includes a misdemeanor for contributing to the condition of a child.

"We have an uphill battle," Cirincion said. "The judiciary house committee is overloaded with defense attorneys. They have their job to do and we have ours."

Engle said anyone who suspects a case of abuse or neglect may call the 24-hour hot line at the Washington County Department of Social Services at 240-420-2222.

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