Schaefer's Choice: Lip Service or a Legacy

May 15, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

When Barbara Mikulski was contemplating the risk of leaving her safe congressional seat to run for the U.S. Senate, she remarked to friends, ''Nobody ever gives up power; you have to take it from them.''

That's as true of well-intentioned administrators as of entrenched politicians. In one current example, the administrators at fault are the very people whose job it is to make sure government does good, not harm, when it provides services to families and children in trouble or distress.

Almost six years into an ambitious effort to reform the way social services are administered in Maryland, Governor Schaefer now threatens to bend to the wishes of some members of his cabinet and veto a bill that enshrines in law the same tenets that have been long embraced by his administration.

This turn of events proves that embracing the idea of reform is one thing; carrying it out is another matter. The bill passed by the General Assembly presents what some officials consider a problem. It goes beyond lip service to reform and targets the real source of power in any bureaucracy -- money.

The bill would require that departments providing services to families and children -- particularly, Education, Health and Mental Hygiene, Juvenile Services, and Human Resources -- funnel money into pools that local agencies can use at their discretion, without the strings state-level departments usually attach. In essence, that bureaucratic change would transfer more decision-making authority -- power -- from the state level to the workers who actually deal with children and families who need government aid.

In real life, that procedural change would mean, for example, that a social worker dealing with a child who exhibits serious problems would not have to choose between categories like ''delinquent'' or ''abused'' simply because the label determines where treatment funds will come from. Delinquents are the responsibility of the Department of Juvenile Services, but abused children are candidates for foster care through the Department of Human Resources. Currently, each department has its own funding stream, and its own eligibility requirements.

With a pooled funding arrangement, social workers have some flexibility. They can even look at the problems within the family and use money to provide services that may help the child by strengthening the family unit.

Many social-services professionals believe that as many as one-third to one-half of the children in Maryland who are currently removed from their homes and put -- at great expense to taxpayers -- into foster care or other placements could stay at home, if a well-planned family preservation program were in place. (These efforts are not a panacea, however. Social workers must always be alert to the possibility of harm to a child who is not removed from a potentially abusive situation. But in those families where such efforts do work, everybody wins -- children, families and taxpayers.)

When the Schaefer administration began its social services reform initiative in 1988, social-services workers had a reputation for reacting to almost any problem by removing children from their homes. In addition to foster care, Maryland was paying $40 million a year for 800 children with special needs to be placed in programs out of state.

The reform initiative reversed that policy, and reduced the number of out-of-state placements by as much as 40 percent. The considerable savings have been redirected toward strengthening community programs that help keep families from falling into crisis in the first place.

The bill that seems to spook Governor Schaefer -- or, at least, some influential cabinet secretaries -- simply pushes those changes along, and preserves them in the event that the next governor puts a low priority on social services. In other words, the bill allows Governor Schaefer to protect the momentous progress his administration has made in social-services delivery.

But given the chance to leave a legacy, the governor is quibbling. He has said he doesn't like the bill because it contains a ''mandate'' that will tie the hands of cabinet secretaries. But the bill deliberately leaves room for working out specific problems -- for example, the fact that the Department of Juvenile Services has to have funding available to meet legal responsibilities in regard to many of the youngsters under its jurisdiction.

Mandates aren't the real issue here. In his last year as governor, ++ William Donald Schaefer faces a choice: Does he want to leave a legacy of social-services reform, or settle for lip service?

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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