Foster care study offers mixed review System strained by longer stays, greater expenses

Standards not uniform

Department chief says report offers blueprint for improvements

March 24, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Foster care stays in Maryland have been growing longer in the past few years, exacting a high personal cost from children forced to grow up in limbo and running up expenses for taxpayers, according to a searching nine-month study being published today.

And standards differ dramatically around the state, so that abuse reports that are quickly investigated in one county may be ignored in another, according to the study, which was commissioned by the Maryland Department of Human Resources to determine how well it was succeeding in its mission of protecting Maryland children in danger of abuse or neglect.

"It shows in many ways a deeply flawed system," Susan Leviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of Maryland, said yesterday. "We're not doing a very good job of keeping children safe."

State officials greeted the report in can-do terms.

"Maryland is doing a good job," said Lynda G. Fox, deputy DHR secretary. "But Maryland is interested in doing a better job. We wanted to set a benchmark for ourselves against the state of the art in the rest of the country. We didn't do this because we had a major problem. We did it because we wanted to do things better."

While in many ways Maryland performs better than the average state, the report prepared by the Child Welfare League of America found, it also has a disjointed system that fails to assure equal protection for children throughout the state. And the state bureaucracy responsible for child welfare has been badly weakened by cutbacks in state spending, early retirement incentives and by hiring poorly paid and temporary contractual workers.

"The data is deeply disturbing to me as a child advocate," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide organization based in Baltimore. "Here we have welfare reform coming along that is likely to put even more kids into foster care. At this vulnerable juncture, we have this report, no money to implement it and the likelihood of increasing numbers of kids coming into the system."

Alvin C. Collins, DHR secretary, who paid $200,000 for the 211-page report, said it provides "a blueprint for innovative and cost-effective ways to better serve children and their families.

"I think it's the most important study we've ever done in how we serve children and families," he said.

Family preservation

The report praised Maryland programs that work to keep families together by offering intensive services to prevent children from reaching foster care.

"It confirms our overall confidence in Maryland's family preservation services," Collins said.

One reason stays are lengthening is that more and more children in Baltimore are being removed from homes destroyed by drug addiction, where there is little hope of return. Many are placed with relatives, Collins said, and because they are with relatives, there is less of a sense of urgency in deciding on a permanent placement for them.

"When we look at it, there's really no promise of returning the child home," Collins said.

Fox said that when a mother needs drug treatment and none is available, many caseworkers are inclined to postpone a permanent placement.

Ninety percent of the children placed with relatives are in Baltimore, the report said. In Maryland in 1993, 300 children were living with relatives who had been licensed as foster parents; by 1996 the number had more than quadrupled to 1,400.

"That has been growing because of the scourge of substance abuse," Fox said. "The birth parent is addicted; then the grandmother tries to take over."

Often, the report says, relatives are given foster home status because they are too poor to bring up the child. A foster family may be paid $550 a month, Fox said. The state has been planning a new kinship care arrangement in which a family could receive $300 a month instead as a "subsidized guardian."

Excessive expenditure

Kinship placement raises issues of excessive expenditure along with too much government involvement in the lives of families, said Charles Cooper, administrator of the Maryland Foster Care for Children Review Board, a government agency that provides for citizen participation in the system.

Not only is Maryland paying close to $600 a month for care when a relative has the foster-home designation, but administrative and supervisory costs required by foster care average another $400 a month, Cooper said.

Often the relatives don't require such extensive government involvement -- the family must ask permission to take a child out of state on a family visit or must consult with a caseworker over health and education decisions.

In other cases, relatives who have custody may receive only $160 a month in welfare payments, Cooper said, often because their houses aren't nice enough to qualify as a foster home.

"Keeping children with families in foster care is incredibly expensive," Cooper said, "and it's bad in every way you can imagine."

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