Baltimore's foster-care system has agreed to provide greater scrutiny of the grandmothers, uncles and cousins who increasingly are caring for abused young relatives who otherwise would be put in foster homes.
Children placed in such "kinship care" arrangements still will receive less government supervision -- and their caretakers less government aid -- than in a regular foster home. But child welfare advocates hailed the new policy as an important recognition of the state's responsibility to look out for such children.
"Their caretakers are -- for the most part -- very caring, very dedicated people. But there are exceptions," said Gayle Hafner, a Legal Aid lawyer who specializes in foster care issues.
The policy is outlined in an agreement filed yesterday in U.S. District Court between state and city foster care officials and the Legal Aid Bureau, the nonprofit law office that forced other changes in Baltimore's foster care system through a class-action lawsuit resolved in 1988.
The agreement, a compromise after more than a year of discussions over issues unresolved by the lawsuit, requires city caseworkers to visit children placed with relatives at least once a month for the first six months, then once every two months after that. Such caseworkers will supervise an average of 30 children.
And the city pledged to pay for counseling and other services that often are needed by the children, the parents who abused them and the relatives who take them.
The agreement marks the first time the city agency has agreed to a detailed policy about the supervision and services it will provide such relatives, who traditionally have been seen as needing less government intervention than a regular foster home. The local agreement comes amid a growing national debate in child welfare circles about the extent to which government should be supervising children who are placed with their own relatives.
Over the past several years, the use of kinship care placements has soared nationally as growing numbers of abused children have been taken from their parents, while the number of traditional foster homes has declined. In Baltimore, there are about 1,200 children in kinship care, up from 500 in 1989.
The relatives who care for them can apply for the roughly $535-a-month room and board payments, counseling and other supports offered by the regular foster care system; but only if they agree to go through the lengthy licensing process required of any foster parent. Many relatives decide not to bother.
"There are many grandparents who consider it very natural that they care for their grandchild. They don't want to be known as a 'foster parent.' And they do not want the state intruding in their lives," said Charlotte King, director of the state Social Services Administration.
The state Social Services Administration -- which pays for the city's foster care system -- expects to spend about $1.2 million to hire more than 30 new workers and purchase the services mentioned in the agreement. Ms. King said the money was taken from "different pots" in her agency's budget. "I'm being vague because I don't want to say exactly where it was found."