A landmark consent decree protecting Baltimore's foster children has been expanded to include children placed with relatives.
Under the modified decree, filed in U.S. District Court yesterday as a joint motion prepared by attorneys for the children and the state, youngsters in such nonlicensed homes are assured certain protections and rights for the first time.
While some people who take in relatives as foster children choose to go through the state's licensing process, many do not, officials said.
As a result, children in their homes have not been guaranteed the standards of care outlined in a 1988 consent decree that governs 3,000 foster children in Baltimore.
The decree came was the result of a 1984 lawsuit against the Department of Human Resources and its secretary, Ruth Massinga, brought by attorneys for a child known as "L.J.," one of five foster children brutalized while in the system in the early 1980s.
The suit, filed in 1984, was ended with a 1988 consent decree that guarantees foster children certain levels of care and supervision.
However, it did not extend to the hundreds of children placed with relatives who were not licensed foster parents. The original decree provided only for an independent study of such children.
"At the time of the original decree, Massinga took the position that these children were not in as much need of protection and services," said Gayle Hafner, a Legal Aid attorney and part of the team that has represented the plaintiffs in the 7-year-old case.
But after 18 months of negotiations the two sides agreed on a compromise, the basis of yesterday's joint motion.
Specific rights spelled out in the modified decree include:
*A cap on caseloads for social workers assigned to children placed with relatives.
*A requirement for sibling visits among children who have been placed in separate homes.
*Health benefits and medical screenings for these children when the Department of Social Services takes custody.
*Parenting classes for interested relatives.
*The establishment of permanency plans for children placed with relatives, including a provision for speeding up the adoption process.
While placement with relatives often is considered preferable for children, King said, many relatives choose not to go through the licensing procedure required of other foster parents and group homes. As a result, the relatives forgo board payments from the state.
Under the modified decree, relatives still may choose not to be licensed, King said. But they will have access to more services, as will the children.