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.

To advocates for children's welfare, that night was emblematic of McCabe's tenure.

"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 total failure."

When asked whether that was his agency's batting average, he conceded, "I don't think anybody is batting 0.999 in this work."

`Broken' system

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 available.

"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 mission."

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 Baltimore's office.

McCabe has invested about $1 million in upgrading computers and working conditions in Baltimore, and has hired 50 workers.