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Montgomery Co. sees spike in children removed from homes

Thursday - 1/23/2014, 9:56am  ET

WASHINGTON - The murders of two small toddlers and the attacks on their older siblings in Montgomery County allegedly by their mother and another woman raise a number of questions about parenting, abuse and mental illness.

So far in January, child welfare workers in Montgomery County have stepped in and removed children from their homes 24 times.

Agnes Leshner, director of Child Welfare Services for Montgomery County, says that's more than twice the number recorded in the same time period in 2013.

Among the issues uncovered by child welfare: physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and parents with serious mental illness.

Leshner says 28-year-old Zakieya Avery, now accused of killing her 1-year-old son Norell and his 2-year-old sister Zyana in what police say was an exorcism, was not on the radar of county authorities.

Leshner says the first time Avery was reported to her office was Thursday, Jan. 16, the night before the murders, when a neighbor called police to report a child was left in a car. By the time police came, the child was brought back inside. Police received no answer at the home, and reported no suspicious activity.

Child welfare workers planned to visit the home the next morning. But before they could, police were called again, and this time it was to a murder scene.

Leshner says it's vital people call her office when they see a child who appears in need. It could be something as small as a child who's not adequately dressed for the weather, or a one who seems to be left outside without supervision too often or too long.

"If people are not sure, they should err on the side of safety and call us," Leshner says.

Leshner says don't assume neighbors have already made that call.

"If we get two or three of those calls, it would definitely up the reason for why we should be going out more quickly," she says.

The same goes for getting someone help if they seem to be suffering from a mental illness.

Raymond Crowel, director of Behavioral Health and Crisis Services, says it can be challenging when trying to get help for adults. They have to be ready for treatment and if they don't consent, it can't be forced upon them.

There are exceptions however.

"If there's a situation where they're putting themselves or someone else in danger, we can take actions to have them hospitalized for a period of time," Crowel says.

Crowel says the mental health system does have a lot of problems.

"We're pretty good at getting people treatment when they're in crisis. The challenge is whether or not they stay in treatment and whether or not they're interested in staying in treatment," he says.

But Crowel encourages people to make a call to mental health workers.

"You may be the person that makes a difference in their lives," he says.

The murdered toddlers case left everyone connected, and even people reading and hearing about it, both heartbroken and shaken. Crowel says it's important for people to pay attention to their own feelings about it.

"It certainly is always useful to talk it out with family members, with friends," Crowel says.

And, Crowel says, if children ask about it, "Pay attention to what children are seeing and hearing on television. To the extent that you can limit that exposure to young children, I would do that."

But if children want to know more, Crowel advises that parents, "answer them at an age-appropriate level to the extent that you can, and let them know they are loved and protected."

After the initial hearing for Avery and 21-year-old Monifa Sanford, the other woman accused of murdering the toddlers and injuring Avery's older children, a 5- year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, a detective on the case, Capt. Marcus Jones told reporters the surviving kids are "recovering well."

"The human psyche is remarkably capable of recovering from any number of things. What's important is recognizing it and getting them help and recognizing that this will be a trauma for them and they will need help to get past it," Crowel says.

Where you can call:

Montgomery County Crisis Center 24 hour number: 240-777-4000

Montgomery County Child Welfare: 240-777-4417, 24 hours with an on call social worker

Prince George's County: 301-909-2450. After hours: 301-699-8605

Fairfax County's Child Protective Services Hotline: 703-324-7400, TTY 703-222-9452

Your calls are confidential.

To contact the National Child Abuse Hotline, which is staffed around the clock, call: 1-800- 4-A-Child.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @KateRyanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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