Keeping kids at home is program's goal

September 13, 1990|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Buoyed by the success of a two-year experiment in Prince George's County, the state is prepared to launch a revolutionary reform movement in several of its social service jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Baltimore County.

The expanded pilot program, funded primarily through the state, will attempt to keep children out of costly out-of-home placements, such as foster care, by providing intensive services to troubled families.

This change represents Maryland's attempt to rethink the foster care system, which was designed for the children and families of an earlier, far different era. The result, if successful, would be a cost-efficient program that keeps families together, its supporters say.

"It's a revolution in the making," said Donna Stark, state director of the Children and Families Services Reform Initiative.

Nancy Grasmick, special secretary for the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families, was to announce the expansion at a conference today at University of Maryland at Baltimore. The programs, expected to be up and running by next spring, also would enable the state to bring back children who have been placed out of state.

Maryland currently spends $212 million annually in out-of-home and out-of-state placements for children, ranging from foster care to juvenile detention facilities to special programs for the mentally ill.

Two years ago, in a project initially funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the first demonstration model for the new family preservation program received a trial run in Prince George's County. Families were assigned to an inter-agency case manager who acted as their go-between with the various state agencies.

The case managers also had flexible funds, enabling them to make decisions and expenditures immediately. For example, if a mother told the case manager the family needed food, the case manager took her to the grocery store. If a child needed a winter coat, the case manager could buy it.

The results were encouraging. Of 294 families with 700 children at imminent risk for being removed from their homes, only 22 children ended up having to leave. Those 22 included seven siblings who spent a night in foster care after a baby-sitter left them alone.

Cost per child for the program averaged out to $2,000 annually, Stark said, compared with the more than $15,000 a year spent on an average foster care placement.

When the state announced plans to expand the program, 13 jurisdictions submitted letters of intent. Eight came up with proposals that were approved by the state. The other DSS offices involved include Montgomery County, Garrett County and the four counties that comprise a mid-Shore office for the Department of Social Services. The program also will be expanded to include all of Prince George's County.

Baltimore, the largest of the jurisdictions, will present special problems for the program, Stark acknowledged, and will not be held to the same standards of success seen in the Prince George's trial.

"Each jurisdiction will have its own standard of outcome," Stark said. "Conceptually, [the city's model] is a beautiful proposal."

While the cost factor is a selling point for the family intervention project, its savings are not kicked back to the state, Stark said. A key part of the model is to provide incentive to the local programs by allowing them to keep 75 percent of any money saved.

For example, preliminary numbers from the six new jurisdictions suggest it will cost them $9 million to $10 million to run the programs, instead of the $13 million they current spend on out-of-home placements.

Leftover money is used for the so-called "flexible funds" at the heart of the program.

Stark said protecting this flexible money may be one of the project's biggest challenges. With the state budget already facing a deficit, she said, there may be pressure on local departments to return all savings to the state, killing the incentive to save and hampering the case managers' ability to help families.

The state provides 75 percent of the funding for the program, while the Casey Foundation contributes the additional funds. In Prince George's County, the local government also contributed to the program's cost.

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