State legislators on Friday gave final approval to a foster care reform bill crafted after the death of a Frederick County toddler who was returned by social workers to her parents’ home.
Bill sponsor Delegate Kathy Afzali said she believes the measure would have saved the life of Anayah Williams, the 21-month-old girl whose death spurred efforts to change the foster care law. Anayah died last year just weeks after she left her foster home to be reunited with her parents. Her father, Frankie Williams, is facing first-degree murder and other charges associated with Anayah’s death. Her mother is charged with first-degree child abuse and accessory after the fact to first-degree abuse for not calling authorities earlier.
Advocates have long pointed out weaknesses in the foster care law, but Afzali, R-District 4, said it has been a slow road to change.
“It wasn’t until, sadly, we had a tragedy that people were really willing to listen,” she said.
Now that both sides of the Legislature have passed the bill, it will come before Gov. Larry Hogan, who will decide whether to sign it into law.
“It’s very rewarding as a legislator to pass legislation to protect children,” said Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, who sponsored Anayah’s Law in his chamber.
The legislation gives social workers more freedom to keep children in foster care rather than reunite them with their biological parents. Current law enables officials to deny reunification only in cases of torture, chronic abuse, sexual abuse, or chronic and life-threatening neglect.
The bill would expand on these categories to allow officials to deny reunion where there is severe abuse or if the parent fails to protect a child from serious mistreatment.
Severe abuse of another child in the household would also be grounds for refusing reunification. This part of the bill in particular relates back to Anayah’s case, said Charlie Smith, Frederick County state’s attorney.
Anayah was put into foster care when she was 4 months old, after she was found with a fractured rib and skull. However, protecting her proved challenging in part because authorities couldn’t determine which member of her household had abused her, Smith said. Eventually, after Anayah had spent more than a year in foster care, officials had to return her to her parents.
After Anayah’s death, Smith helped advocate for legal change and assisted in drafting the bill that Afzali submitted. The version that passed the Legislature on Friday is somewhat modified from this initial proposal; Afzali and Smith said while they would’ve preferred the original, they are glad for the progress the revised version will bring.
“Without this bill, the Department of Social Services would have no authority whatsoever under the existing law to keep children out of potentially dangerous homes,” Smith said.
News of the bill’s passage in the Senate was welcomed by Anayah’s Advocates, a group that has lobbied and testified for the proposal this session.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Karen Kwasny, of Mount Airy. “It just goes to show that ordinary people teaming up with the right people ... can make a difference.”
Anayah’s Law is the first bill with Afzali as lead sponsor to pass the General Assembly since she first took office in 2011. While Afzali says she has successfully pushed other proposals through the Legislature, she said the foster care bill is probably the most gratifying she has worked on so far.
Kwasny said she, Cathy Sipocz, Cindi Webb and other members of Anayah’s Advocates plan to continue working on the state’s foster care laws.