When Christopher J. McCabe stood at the microphone of a recent nationallytelevised news conference, Maryland's highest child welfare official mentionedhis boss' name, introduced his colleagues and spoke vaguely about his agency'swork.
The secretary of the Department of Human Resources barely mentioned thefate of an abandoned 3-year-old, even as CNN and other news outletsinterrupted regular programming in hopes of hearing more details on the girlknown as Courtney from Brooklyn.
To advocates for children's welfare, that night was emblematic of McCabe'stenure.
"DSS can't figure out who's on first base. It's pathetic," said SusanLeviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of MarylandSchool of Law. "Here we are in Maryland, which is one of the wealthiest statesin the nation, and this is what we're known for."
Since the former Howard County state senator took office in February lastyear, his agency has repeatedly been thrust into the spotlight for deaths ofabused children - deaths that some say might have been preventable had socialservices workers acted differently.
Overseeing 7,000 employees in 24 social service departments across thestate, McCabe has a budget of $1.5 billion for child welfare, as well asservices for the elderly and poor.
McCabe, a 48-year-old Republican, is aware of his agency's tarnished imageand said he is working hard to regain the public's trust.
"We want to demonstrate to people that we are improving," McCabe said. "Inour work, we can be batting 0.999 and have one failure and be perceived as atotal failure."
When asked whether that was his agency's batting average, he conceded, "Idon't think anybody is batting 0.999 in this work."
Even McCabe's critics say he's a nice guy who cares about children. Butthey insist the agency needs more.
"Caring isn't enough," Leviton said. "You have to have the resources to doit, and I don't think he does. You need someone to get in there and say, `Thesystem is broken, and I'm going to fix it.' That's hard in this administrationbecause you're supposed to say, `Everything's fine.'"
McCabe was appointed by his friend Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. McCabe saidEhrlich reminds him at times that nobody else asked for the job.
In 2002, 33 children died as a result of abuse, pushing Maryland over thenational average of 1.98 child-abuse deaths per 100,000 children, to 2.4 per100,000. The department investigated nearly 33,000 incidents of child abuseacross the state in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics areavailable.
"Frankly, it's a daunting task we have," McCabe said. "We are dealing withfragile families and individuals who are relying on the government at avulnerable time in their lives. We can't mend families."
A statement released by Ehrlich's office said the governor has known McCabepersonally and professionally for many years and has confidence in his abilityto lead the agency.
"It's no secret that the Department of Human Resources is a highlyscrutinized agency. However, Chris McCabe remains calm under pressure, oftenhighlighting areas of improvement in the agency," the statement said. "Themission of DHR is both critical and clear: To continue to improve and save thelives of Maryland families. Chris McCabe is the right person to carry out thismission."
As secretary of the department, McCabe said he is focusing on three mainareas: improving working conditions for case workers, bridging the disconnectbetween his office and the local departments around the state, and improvingBaltimore's office.
McCabe has invested about $1 million in upgrading computers and workingconditions in Baltimore, and has hired 50 workers.
"I have been as engaged in Baltimore City Department of Social Services asa secretary can be," he said.
Lately, that's meant dealing with tragedy after tragedy, often complicatedby flaws in the child welfare system.
The most recent was two weeks ago, when twin infant girls were killed inthe basement of a vacant Northeast Baltimore rowhouse.
Authorities have since identified a major communication gap that might havecontributed to the case.
Sierra Swann, the teenage mother of the twins, was known to Social Servicesas a foster care runaway from whom another child had been taken because ofabuse and neglect. She was allowed to leave the hospital with her newborngirls, Emonney and Emunnea Broadway, even after a hospital social workercalled the state to inquire about Swann. Swann and her boyfriend, NathanielBroadway, have been charged with murder.
In the aftermath, McCabe suggested changes to the child welfare system,including forming a work group with agency heads to discuss policy. McCabewould not say who would be on the group, when it would meet or exactly what itwould discuss.
That move became political when he decided on the changes with State'sAttorney Patricia C. Jessamy, a political nemesis of Mayor Martin O'Malley,one of the state's Democratic leaders.
O'Malley has been in a legal battle for months with Ehrlich over who shouldlead Baltimore's Department of Social Services.
O'Malley has said that interim Director Floyd Blair is not qualified to runthe department. McCabe and Ehrlich say he is.
So when McCabe came under fire for the department's involvement in thetwins case, he sought cover in Jessamy, an official who has also sparred withO'Malley.
"DSS is perceived as being isolated," McCabe said. "If it is perceived thatwe're not connected, that's not a good thing."
But the alliance drew criticism from many, including Del. Samuel I.Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and ally of O'Malley's.
"Why reinvent the wheel and delay things to begin a new group - whichapparently is very nebulous, to say the least?" Rosenberg said. "Why meet withsomeone who is not on good terms with the mayor? The burden is doubly on himto move with some alacrity to reform the process."
But McCabe said he is pleased to work with Jessamy on the issue.
"I appreciate the state's attorney for showing we are working withpartners," he said.
McCabe was a state senator for 10 years and lives with his wife, Deidre - aformer Sun reporter - and their four children. He said he was drawn to publicservice because of his faith.
"My Catholic faith instructed me that there was a personal obligation,"McCabe said. "If you're given certain gifts, you are to identify what they areand use them to help others."
People who know him from the state Senate say he is a man of principles whowill take a stand even if it's unpopular.
"He's a very committed individual. He takes his responsibility veryseriously," said Martin Madden, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Critical AreasCommission and a former Republican state senator from Howard.
McCabe left the Senate soon after campaigning for George W. Bush in thelatter's presidential race, tapped by Health and Human Services SecretaryTommy G. Thompson to lead the federal department's Office of IntergovernmentalAffairs.
He came back to Maryland after a vigorous campaign for Ehrlich.
McCabe said he and Ehrlich met at the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas.
As a senator, he focused on such issues as education. His biography listshis involvement in dozens of groups, including the Boy Scouts.
While in the Senate, he was the director of development for the JohnsHopkins Medical Institutions, where he worked as a fund-raiser.
He said he became interested in issues related to children in 1981, when hewas appointed to Howard County's first Foster Care Review Board.
McCabe said he feels sad every time a child is killed but is able to putthe tragedies in perspective.
"These are happening all over the country," McCabe said. "But there's noexcuse for it. There's no excuse for parents harming their children."