Some of the millions of dollars Maryland now spends to place child- abuse victims in foster care will instead be used to buy help for their parents so the children can stay at home, state officials said yesterday.
In a plan aimed at radically changing the state's child welfare system, local governments also are being asked to keep delinquent youngsters out of juvenile jails and emotionally disturbed youngsters out of mental hospitals. They, too, should be allowed to remain with their families whenever possible, state officials say.
Nancy Grasmick, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's special secretary for children, youth and families, announced yesterday that Baltimore and eight counties have been asked to develop "family preservation" programs implementing the new policy.
The nine jurisdictions are expected to spend nearly $15 million in the next year to buy counseling, day care and other services to enable troubled children to stay at home. The money will be diverted from various budgets earmarked for foster homes, youth wards in mental hospitals, juvenile detention centers and other out-of-home care for children.
Dr. Grasmick said the primary reason for the new policy is a belief that, in most cases, children will fare better with their own families than as wards of the state. "At the heart of this effort is the notion that no one can be a better parent than a child's own parent," she said.
State officials acknowledge, however, that their motivation is partly economic. The cost of providing residential care to children is skyrocketing, and officials say the state must find ways to curb the increase. Maryland spent $212 million on out-of-home care for children in fiscal 1989 -- $50 million more than it did two years earlier.
Child welfare advocates, while generally applauding the new emphasis, say they are aware the new policies could be used simply to cut state spending. But Dr. Grasmick's office has pledged that any money saved by caring for youngsters in their homes will be channeled back into other services for children. Advocates say they believe her.
"We have to try this," said Susan Leviton, a law professor and president of a group called Advocates for Children and Youth. "Right now, we are putting kids in foster homes and then 18 months later, we send them back to families who haven't gotten any help in changing their lives," Ms. Leviton said.
"I have hope that this will be much better for kids. It can't be any worse than what we're doing now," she said.
Dr. Grasmick stressed yesterday that many children will continue to be placed in foster homes.
"We are realistic enough to know that this won't work in every case," she said. The point, she said, is to make sure that children are removed from their families only when it's necessary and not "by default."
Officials acknowledge there is risk associated with the new approach, and that it is possible a child
left with an abusive family will be seriously hurt or even killed. "But there's a risk in what we do now," said Donna Stark, an aide to Dr. Grasmick, adding that children are sometimes hurt in foster homes as well.
Ms. Stark said that "safety assessments" will be conducted before officials decide whether a child can stay at home. "They will look at safety for the kid, safety for the family and safety for the community at large," she said.