Linda D'Amario Rossi, whose blunt, no-nonsense style as secretary of juvenile services has won her fans and critics in her 3 1/2 -year tenure here, said today she has been offered a job package in Rhode Island that Maryland simply cannot match.
Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun was to announce today that he has offered Rossi the directorship of the state Department for Children and Families, a job to which Rossi was appointed in 1984, then promptly lost in 1985 when a new governor, Edward D. DiPrete, was elected. Sundlun now has replaced DiPrete.
Sources said Sundlun's offer -- first made, and rebuffed, last fall -- was sweetened to include a slight raise, a five-year contract and credit in the state pension plan for the six years Rossi has worked in Maryland and Texas. That would be on top of the 14 years Rossi already had in the Rhode Island system.
Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer said that deal was far better than anything Maryland could give her, Rossi said. The offer also carries emotional weight, coming from her home state, where her parents live.
Still, the decision did not come easy. "I've had other offers, all along," Rossi said. "This governor was after me during the election and I said no, I wasn't interested.
"It wasn't until the package we talked about became so good . . . " she said, then stopped as her voice broke; she seemed on the verge of tears. "I wish this package would be offered to me again in four years."
Appointed by Schaefer, who elevated Rossi's agency to Cabinet-level status, Rossi has always said that she did not expect to stay here past his second term.
Since she came to Maryland in 1987, the Department of Juvenile Services has changed markedly, moving away from institutional care for juveniles to more community-based programs. Rossi also has relied increasingly on private contractors, aggravating her already strained relationship with state employees.
"We are not the same organization we used to be," she said. "Kids come first. Families come first. That's our strongest commitment, and we're proud of that."
Rossi closed the scandal-ridden Montrose School and reduced the population at the state's remaining reformatory, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in northern Baltimore County. A rash of escapes at Hickey in the summer of 1989 briefly made her the focus of much negative attention by legislators, but she quickly brought the situation under control.
Her direct, impatient style meshed well with the governor's, but made her unpopular with some staff members. Jessie McNair, president of the AFSCME local that represents DJS employees, has nothing but criticism for Rossi.
There is a remote possibility that Rossi will not leave, because her job package still must be approved by the Rhode Island legislature within the next few weeks.
"If the bill goes through and passes, then I'll leave," she said.