State legislators say drug testing puts welfare children's needs first Plan's supporters say details are still vague

December 08, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

In years past, most Maryland legislators would have scoffed at the notion that welfare applicants should submit to drug testing.

They're not scoffing anymore.

Instead, the proposal, already endorsed by a bipartisan panel, is stirring interest in Annapolis. Lawmakers from both parties say they like the concept -- if it can be made workable and affordable.

"I know a lot of people in my district are not going to like this idea of testing," said Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat. "But I have to keep the children in mind first. Children aren't getting benefits when a parent has this kind of problem."

Branch is a member of the legislature's Joint Committee on Welfare Reform, which recommended drug testing this week. Under the proposal, welfare applicants who tested positive for drugs and failed to attend treatment programs would lose benefits for themselves and see their children's benefits doled out by a third party such as a church or charity.

Not a single member of the 10-person bipartisan panel voted against the measure.

No state has enacted such a broad-based effort to screen every new welfare recipient. And although similar proposals have been heard in Annapolis in the past, they were rejected as punitive, unconstitutional or simply unfair.

"It's kind of shocking, isn't it?" said Del. Martha S. Klima, a conservative Baltimore County Republican. "Could this have happened three years ago? Absolutely not."

But like many of their constituents, legislators have grown increasingly frustrated with the welfare system. The legislature approved state reforms earlier this year -- months before the White House and Congress settled on a plan.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said times have changed.

This year's federal reforms make it clear that welfare is no longer an entitlement, and arguments over privacy pale next to the impact drug-addicted parents have on children, he said.

"Children are unlikely to be cared for if they have a mother who is taking drugs," said Rosenberg. "This is how we can deter parents from taking drugs or at least have an incentive for treatment."

The plan's supporters acknowledge that details of the testing program are still vague. The welfare reform committee is not expected to release its recommendation until Jan. 1, and then legislation will have to be submitted to the General Assembly.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not taken a position on drug testing, but officials in the Department of Human Resources said they are studying the plan and reserving judgment for the moment.

"This could be a costly approach, and I'm concerned about the effects on child welfare services," said Lynda G. Fox, a deputy secretary.

Nevertheless, the proposal has already gotten some key support. Rosenberg and Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican who co-chairs the welfare committee, have influence on the issue. Their panel included four city lawmakers and three who represent parts of Prince George's County, two jurisdictions that account for a majority of the state's welfare recipients.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, described the plan as "common sense personified." He said he expected to see it pass -- if the cost can be justified and a sufficient number of drug treatment opportunities can be found.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't even talk about welfare reform," Miller said. "I don't know if there has been a shift in attitudes or just the extreme frustration that what we're doing now is not working."

But a number of legislators are skeptical that the proposal can be made workable. Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said any effort to get help for drug abusers is laudable, but she does not believe that drug screening is the answer.

"I have never favored drug testing simply for the purposes of holding it as a hammer over someone's head in order to get welfare for children," she said. "The states have cut back on detox programs and treatment and prevention of drug and alcohol abuse. We're kidding ourselves."

That was a concern raised by some supporters, too. Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and former NAACP regional director, and Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's Democrat and former public school principal, said that while they like the idea, they'll have plenty of questions about it.

"You proposed something like this in the past, and we would have been run out on a rail," said Burns. "But when you consider what's happening in the African-American community, change has to come."

Benson, former head of the legislative black caucus, said she has seen too much harm come to children of drug-involved parents not to seriously consider drug testing.

"Concerns about privacy go out the window when you accept money from the government," she said. "On the other hand, if the state is serious about this, we have to provide opportunities for people to get help."

Madden said he was optimistic that legislators would ultimately endorse the proposal -- if only because federal welfare reform has put a five-year lifetime cap on cash assistance to recipients.

Without testing, he said, drug abusers might find themselves in far worse condition in five years -- exhausted welfare benefits and no treatment opportunities.

"If we can identify the problem early, we have five years to work with them," he said.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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