Foster care alternative off to promising start

March 30, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

A new state social services program could keep nearly 1,000 children out of foster care and save the state and federal governments about $9 million in its first full year, based on its performance through last December.

It already has earned Maryland nearly universal acclaim from both child-care and family protection advocates.

Families Now, approved by the General Assembly in 1991 and paid for by shifting $7 million from the state's $120 million foster care budget, aims to keep children out of foster care and to reunite families as quickly as possible when children are removed.

It's working. Projections for the fiscal year ending June 30 show 500 fewer children being placed in foster homes than last fiscal year. The drop becomes more dramatic when figured against the number of placements the state had projected, based on previous years. Using those figures, 925 fewer children will end up in foster care than officials had expected.

State officials estimate it costs $12,000 annually to place a child in foster care, compared with about $1,500 if the family's problems are addressed while the child remains at home.

That's a $10,500 savings for each child who never sees the inside of a foster home -- good news for a state in which fiscal crises have almost become a rite of spring.

Families Now money was spread among Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore and used to pay for several services. They include Intensive Family Service teams, whose members, on call 24 hours, can help with everything from family counseling to getting a house cleaned up to lending money -- on the spot -- to pay rent or buy food.

"The bottom line is, Families Now is working for the state and for the kids," said Charlie Cooper, director of the state Foster Care Review Board. "Nine hundred kids kept out of foster care -- this is real."

And in an age when family values are lamented as something of an endangered species, keeping families together has the added advantage of appearing politically correct. Maryland is among several states that not only have made family protection a matter of policy, but have taken steps to ensure that each jurisdiction has the money to make it a reality.

"Reliance on foster care is not good for kids and it's rotten social policy," said Frank Farrow, director of Child Policy Issues for the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy. He praised Maryland as one of only a few states that has made family preservation a state wide initiative.

"I think kids often went into foster care in the past because we didn't have services to make sure they could stay in the home and be safe," said state Department of Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin. "Clearly, experience has shown that foster care is not the best place for kids. I can't think of what's good about foster care."

Among Baltimore-area counties, Anne Arundel, which established its first Intensive Family Services team in 1985, has had the most success -- both because family preservation has been the prevailing philosophy for almost a decade, and because Department of Social Services workers are committed to the concept, from Director Edward R. Bloom on down.

Before Families Now, the number of Anne Arundel County children placed in foster homes had remained fairly steady at 10 percent of all cases investigated, significantly less than other jurisdictions its size. For the last six months of 1992, the number dipped to 5.3 percent, by far the lowest in the Baltimore-Washington area. Other results ranged from 16.3 percent in Baltimore County to 9.4 percent in Harford County.

Families face array of ills

Many families served by the program are plagued by several problems, including financial problems, past physical abuse, substance abuse, unstable relationships, joblessness and lack of parenting skills. But today's social service workers are trained to look for strengths and glimmers of hope, even in the most troubled families.

For example, a young mother from Pioneer City in Anne Arundel County arrived home recently to find social workers and police removing her four young children, who had been left alone.

The house was unfit for habitation, the social worker told her -- the refrigerator was full of maggots, the rooms nearly impassable because of piles of trash, clothing and broken furniture.

Another young mother, living in Brooklyn Park with her 17-year-old boyfriend, answered the door to find a social worker on her stoop, to investigate allegations of physical and sexual child abuse. The 22-year-old mother denied she has abused her 2-year-old son, and the social worker eventually believed her. But the mother confessed she was abused as a child and feared doing the same.

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