When Christopher J. McCabe stood at the microphone of a recent nationally televised news conference, Maryland's highest child welfare official mentioned his boss' name, introduced his colleagues and spoke vaguely about his agency's work.
The secretary of the Department of Human Resources barely mentioned the
fate of an abandoned 3-year-old, even as CNN and other news outlets
interrupted regular programming in hopes of hearing more details on the girl
known as Courtney from Brooklyn.
"DSS can't figure out who's on first base. It's pathetic," said Susan
Leviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of Maryland
School of Law. "Here we are in Maryland, which is one of the wealthiest states
in the nation, and this is what we're known for."
Since the former Howard County state senator took office in February last
year, his agency has repeatedly been thrust into the spotlight for deaths of
abused children - deaths that some say might have been preventable had social
services workers acted differently.
Overseeing 7,000 employees in 24 social service departments across the
state, McCabe has a budget of $1.5 billion for child welfare, as well as
services for the elderly and poor.
McCabe, a 48-year-old Republican, is aware of his agency's tarnished image
and said he is working hard to regain the public's trust.
"We want to demonstrate to people that we are improving," McCabe said. "In
our work, we can be batting 0.999 and have one failure and be perceived as a
When asked whether that was his agency's batting average, he conceded, "I
don't think anybody is batting 0.999 in this work."
Even McCabe's critics say he's a nice guy who cares about children. But
they insist the agency needs more.
"Caring isn't enough," Leviton said. "You have to have the resources to do
it, and I don't think he does. You need someone to get in there and say, `The
system is broken, and I'm going to fix it.' That's hard in this administration
because you're supposed to say, `Everything's fine.'"
McCabe was appointed by his friend Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. McCabe said
Ehrlich reminds him at times that nobody else asked for the job.
In 2002, 33 children died as a result of abuse, pushing Maryland over the
national average of 1.98 child-abuse deaths per 100,000 children, to 2.4 per
100,000. The department investigated nearly 33,000 incidents of child abuse
across the state in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are
"Frankly, it's a daunting task we have," McCabe said. "We are dealing with
fragile families and individuals who are relying on the government at a
vulnerable time in their lives. We can't mend families."
A statement released by Ehrlich's office said the governor has known McCabe
personally and professionally for many years and has confidence in his ability
to lead the agency.
"It's no secret that the Department of Human Resources is a highly
scrutinized agency. However, Chris McCabe remains calm under pressure, often
highlighting areas of improvement in the agency," the statement said. "The
mission of DHR is both critical and clear: To continue to improve and save the
lives of Maryland families. Chris McCabe is the right person to carry out this
As secretary of the department, McCabe said he is focusing on three main
areas: improving working conditions for case workers, bridging the disconnect
between his office and the local departments around the state, and improving
McCabe has invested about $1 million in upgrading computers and working
conditions in Baltimore, and has hired 50 workers.