Few donate to foster care fund Publicity blitz to ask jurors to give stipends to assist children

November 26, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

After its first six months, a Howard County courts program in which jurors can donate daily stipends to aid foster care children has not yielded nearly as much money as expected -- so officials are preparing a publicity blitz.

Before the program began, county officials conducted a survey that indicated that 50 percent of jurors would be willing to donate their fees of $10 to $20 a day. But so far, court officials say, only about 25 percent of those called for jury duty opt to participate.

Since May, only about $3,000 has been collected.

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who proposed the program, said the county plans to boost awareness with posters and brochures that will be distributed in county buildings.

Gray said he hopes that questionnaires sent to prospective jurors' homes soon will include a box that they can check if they want to donate.

"We expect to get a great response from people," Gray said.

Added Barbara Russell, legislative aide to the County Council: "We feel if people are aware of it, contributions will follow. It's just that not that many people know about it."

With federal funds for social service programs declining as the fTC number of foster children rises, Gray said, he would like to see the program raise as much as $75,000 in the year ahead.

"We think it's a way citizens can be in partnership with the DSS [Department of Social Services] and the Circuit Court to make a contribution to our county's needs," Gray said.

The funds are used to purchase goods and stage activities for the 106 county children in foster care, said Barbara Law, the DSS' assistant director for services.

With the money raised so far, four children been able to join a bowling league at Normandy Lanes in Ellicott City. And staff members are planning to take a large group of children to the traditional Christmas ballet "The Nutcracker" in Baltimore, Law said.

The state allots $1.5 million to care for Howard's foster children. It pays families $535 to $650 a month for each child they house, depending on the child's age. It also places children in group homes or in programs run by nonprofit agencies, both of which have higher costs.

The remainder of county foster-care funds go toward psychiatric consultations, other counseling and day care, Law said, with little room for extras.

"The original idea was to enrich the lives of foster children and get them things they could not get otherwise," Law said. "We're hoping for more money to come in."

Gray modeled the Howard project after a program under way in Dallas County, Texas, since 1989 -- one that has collected $1.4 million in seven years, said Bill Melton, Dallas County's treasurer.

About 30 percent of jurors there donate their $6 daily fee, he said, with the money principally going toward programs for disadvantaged and at-risk youth.

Every year, 10 percent of the total goes to the county's 200 foster parents to buy Christmas presents for the children, he said.

The idea was developed by Dallas County officials and judges. Melton said the idea sprang from the fact that many people were simply returning the fees they were given to serve as jurors.

"They'd send it back and say 'It's our public service and we enjoy doing it,' " Melton said. "We've been able to do a lot" with the money.

Steven T. Merson, jury commissioner for Howard's Circuit Court, said the same thing was happening in Howard.

"At least now, [the returned fees are] going to a good cause," he said. "We didn't know what to do with it. We were just dumping it back" into the general fund.

Howard residents are told about about the program when they call in for jury duty. A sign is posted near where they register in the courthouse.

But most people sign up to donate when they see the prospective juror in front of them do it, Merson said.

"It's kind of like a chain reaction," he said.

On a recent day, Highland resident Bonnie Compton, a pediatric nurse, was one of four jurors from a pool of 45 who donated. She did so, she said, because the holiday season was approaching.

"I know funds are limited," Compton said. "They certainly can use all the money they can get."

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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