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Allen Walker

Born: Oct. 26, 1945, New Haven, Conn.

Education: M.A., B.A., Amherst College; M.D., University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

Current Position: Director, Pediatric Emergency Medicine; Director, Child Protection Team

Family: Wife, Barbara, and two daughters: Jessica, 29; Meredith, 26. Walker and Jessica, a fourth-year veterinary student, hope to investigate the link between people who abuse animals and those who abuse children.

Hobbies: Yee-ha! During the early 80s, Walker was not just the chief of pediatrics at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, Nev., he was also a rodeo doctor. "Everybody should have a saddle in their living room." (He got his on Ebay.)

Allen Walker: Child Advocate

  Allen Walker, director of pediatric emergency medicine, plays a leading role in Baltimore's fight against child abuse.
If Allen Walker had his way, you’d be waiting in a much longer line at the voting booth this November. The 58-year-old child-abuse specialist is only half-joking when he says that allowing minors to vote would be the best way to ensure their rights are protected.

Sometimes, particularly in Baltimore, where children die of abuse at a rate that exceeds the national average, it seems as though no one else is looking after the rights of minors. Part of the problem, says Walker, director of pediatric emergency medicine, is ignorance—on the part of the public and even the medical community. “I have talked to pediatricians whom I respect—I’d send my own kids to them—who tell me that if a kid walks in with bruising, abuse wouldn’t even be on their minds,” he says incredulously.

But it most definitely has been on his mind.

For nearly 10 years, Walker has led Hopkins’ Child Protection Team. The team consists mainly of Walker, senior clinical social worker Kristen Webb, pediatric emergency medicine nurse practitioner Shawna Mudd, and pediatric emergency physician Mitchell Goldstein. This group of experts reviews policies and procedures to make sure they work in the best interests of children. They try to understand specific cases and then recommend appropriate services. These might include substance abuse treatment, anger management or even prosecution, in which case the team works with the city police, State’s Attorney’s Office and Department of Social Services to build cases against suspected offenders. Says Goldstein: “Everybody on the Child Protection Team has a common goal: to provide the best care for the patient.”

Like others involved in Baltimore’s child welfare system, this group has weathered a rough few years. Several recent child deaths in the city have provided the kind of drama that fuels an episode of Law and Order: S.V.U. First, there was the January death of 2-month-old David Carr (not a Hopkins patient), whose mother was on probation for breaking the limbs of her older child and was supposed to be under the watch of Child Protective Services. Then came the gruesome story in May of Sierra Swann and Nathaniel Broadway. In a basement apartment with no electricity and no running water, the couple’s 1-month-old twins were found dead.

The story of little Emunnea and Emonney Broadway who were born at Hopkins, was heartbreaking for everyone. Ideally, better communication among all the parties involved, including Hopkins and DSS, might have helped.

“We know we can always do things better at Johns Hopkins,” says Walker. He has been working on improving communication between staff taking care of children and staff caring for mothers. A nurse practitioner from obstetrics now serves on the Child Protection Team. “There’s now a report system that goes back and forth so that we have a better understanding of the social situation,” he says, noting that in cases like these, face-to-face communication among staff is better than electronic messaging.

A frequent expert witness in court cases involving child abuse, Walker has also served on various city and state committees dealing with the problem. Recently, he was one of eight experts on the Child Welfare Reform Committee, a group headed by city health commissioner Peter Beilenson that last January proposed 18 different recommendations to improve Baltimore’s system. It looks as though the chief recommendation—having caseworkers on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day, at Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Center—is now being implemented. Walker says he is seeing more city social workers in the middle of the night in the pediatric ED.

“Child abuse occurs 24/7, yet up until recently, the entire city of Baltimore had only two people on duty,” he says. “The entire agency has got to work 24/7. Look at Reno,” says Walker, referring to the Nevada town where he once practiced. “People gamble around the clock. I know people can adapt.”

There’s also now one DSS phone number that hospital workers can call when inquiring about a patient. But serious problems remain. The DSS budget has shrunk by $3 million. Over 270 Child Protective Services caseworkers in the city juggle up to 20 child abuse and neglect cases at a time; the Child Welfare League of America advises no more than 17.

One thing that hasn’t helped is having to dodge the missiles being lobbed back and forth between Mayor Martin O’Malley and Gov. Robert Ehrlich. The two men are feuding over, among other things, who should lead DSS. But Walker insists the political in-fighting will not destroy the relationship that the Child Protection Team, law enforcement and city welfare officials have taken years to build. “We may need some refocusing, but I am not at all convinced that the partnership has fallen apart,” he says.

Walker winces every time he sees cities and states spend big money on projects that have no benefit whatoever for children, when using those funds to, say, hire first-rate teachers would be a smarter investment. “We as a society have demonstrated pretty conclusively that kids are not our most important resource.”

—Sarah Richards

 

 

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