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Obtaining Social Service Records in Child Abuse Cases

Many Marylanders are often wrongly accused of child abuse. Police and prosecutors are often too quick to rush to judgment and fail to do a complete investigation. In several cases, I have been able to exonerate innocent defendants by obtaining the Social Service records of the alleged child-victim. These sealed records, although sometimes difficult to obtain, often point to the real abuser.

The problem arises when a child shows physical signs of obvious abuse. One case I had involving a teacher being charged with physically abusing a 7 year old student. The school nurse had seen marks on the child and inquired the source. Rather than point the finger at the true abuser-the child’s mother- the child thought it would be simpler to wrongfully accuse a teacher. In the child’s mind, it was better to accuse an innocent teacher (whom the child disliked anyway) than point the finger at the true abuser, who the child otherwise loved and relied upon.

In general, it is unlawful for anyone to divulge information concerning social service records. Maryland law states when records may be divulged. This is not a mandatory provision but a discretionary one.

The Court in Baltimore City Dep’t of Social Servs. v. Stein, 328 Md. 1, 612 A.2d 880 (1992) proposes criteria for determining whether social services records are discoverable. They refer to a “need to inspect” threshold. One must cross this threshold in order to examine social service records. The Court outlines factors for crossing this threshold. They are:
-the nature of the charges brought against the defendant
-the relationship between the charges
-the information sought
-the likelihood that review of the records would result in the discovery of relevant information

The court also suggests other methods of determining the relevancy of the information without the records being directly examined by the defendant. They suggested in camera proceedings in which the court determines whether all, part or none of the record is admissible. This helps protect the information in the records, as was the intent of the legislature when enacting this statute.

Once these steps are followed, and the Social Service records are known, the true abuser may be revealed. In the case above, the records documented a pattern of abuse by the mother for over five years. The records showed the mother had beaten the child on 7 different occasions, leaving marks remarkably similar to the ones which prompted the teacher to be charged. Once this was brought to light, the mother confessed and the charges were dropped against the teacher.

For further information on defending criminal child abuse cases, please contact the Maryland criminal defense lawyers at Silverman, Thomson, Slutkin and White.

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