Budget crunch hurts foster care, lawyers for the children say State deficits, other measures cited in report.

April 05, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

The state is losing ground in its efforts to comply with a federal court consent decree requiring sweeping improvements in Baltimore's foster-care system, say lawyers for the children.

State budget deficits and cost-containment measures have caused foster children in Maryland to lose "valuable programs," states a report filed this week in U.S. District Court as part of a class-action lawsuit initiated in 1984 on behalf of the children.

"While [the Department of Human Resources and its staff] have made progress in several areas, some of the gains in the last two and a half years have diminished in the last six months," the report states.

Legal Aid attorney Gayle Hafner and private attorney Mitchell Y. Mirviss filed the document in response to a recent status report filed by the Department of Human Resource. The department claimed in its report that it was in full compliance with the consent decree reached in federal court. That decree required the department to, among other things, reduce caseloads and provide better medical care to children in foster care.

Hafner and Mirviss disagree with the department's assessment. The department's problems, they say, are in four areas: caseloads, placements, permanency planning and health care.

* Caseloads in every area were higher than the decree called for, according to the report filed by lawyers for the children. These problems have been exacerbated by the department's tight budget and the General Assembly's refusal to authorize enough new positions, the report says.

* There also is a shortage of appropriate placements for children in foster care. Children are placed in more costly temporary shelters, and 66 are housed out of state. However, the report notes that the department has done a better job at recruiting and keeping foster parents.

* Health care for foster children will be affected by the soon-to-expire contract between the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and the University of Maryland Medical Systems. The lawyers for the children fear that the new health-screening program is not designed specifically for foster children.

* Finally, the report asserts that the department is filing fewer petitions to free children for adoption, and those petitions are taking longer to get to trial.

The 1984 lawsuit against the state is commonly known as L.J. vs. Massinga. L.J., now a teen-ager, was one of several children abused in foster care, while Massinga is former DHR Secretary Ruth Massinga.

In September 1988, the state agreed to the consent decree. The state agreed to pay $595,000 in lawyers' fees and other expenses, and agreed to virtually all the reforms sought by lawyers for the children.

Under the agreement, DHR was to bring Baltimore City within compliance by September 27, 1990.

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