Foster care reform urged Panel seeks changes in courts' dealings with abused children

'A wake-up call'

New report notes lack of uniformity in data gathering

November 05, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A statewide panel is recommending sweeping reforms in the way Maryland courts deal with abused and neglected children in foster care.

In a 62-page report to be presented today, the committee describes a stressed system that is in disarray, including poorly trained judges and lawyers and recordkeeping so scrambled that it sometimes fails to distinguish adoptions from state efforts to take children away from their parents.

The report, "The Maryland Judiciary's Foster Care Court Improvement Project -- Improving Court Performance for Abused and Neglected Children," will be given at Gov. Parris N. Glendening's annual Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, to be held in Baltimore.

"The state of affairs is obviously so not good, and they have now documented that it is not good," said Sally C. Millemann, policy specialist for child welfare at Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, a private nonprofit advocacy group.

"If this can be used as a wake-up call, it is definitely needed," said Susan P. Leviton, a founder of Advocates for Children who runs the University of Maryland Law School's children's clinic. She chaired a 1987 task force that led to a shortened time for adoptions.

Even the committee chairman was taken aback by some of the findings.

"We tried to go into jurisdictions and ask them, 'OK, give us all your closed cases for fiscal 1995.' They couldn't do it," said Patrick L. Woodward, Montgomery County District Court judge.

"We have got a lot of work cut out for us," he said.

Changes that might come out of this study will affect thousands of neglected and abused children. Maryland has about 8,500 children in foster care, and 3,000 more living with relatives. Those numbers have increased each year, said committee member Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the state's Foster Care Review Board.

The burgeoning number of cases has not been accompanied by an increase in court personnel and support staff, leading to horrendous backups. In some places, such as Baltimore, hearings that should take place every six months have not been held for 18 months, he said.

Of eight jurisdictions studied, none came close to complying with state law, which says courts must rule on a termination-of-parental-rights petition within 180 days. Anne Arundel County came closest. Seventy-five percent of the cases there were completed on time, compared with Baltimore, where the rate was 16 percent.

Also among the panel's recommendations and findings:

The judiciary should overhaul its method of gathering information before 2000 so the state has uniform ways to describe such basic court activities as what happened in a case, when it is opened and when it is closed. The panel often found that with varying criteria, procedures and terminology around the state, the number of cases and their status could not be determined. Baltimore did not close 90 percent of its Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) cases, while Caroline County never closed a shelter-care case. Some reopened old cases for a single child, but others kept opening new cases for the same child.

The courts should train judges, who decide guardianship cases, and masters, who hear and monitor CINA cases. Surveys showed a "significant lack of judicial training," with 24 of 42 judges and masters saying they had no experience with foster care before handling the cases in their courtrooms. Woodward said that, at least as a start, the state offered a two-day training session for judges and masters in June.

Poor parents need legal help, and lawyers need better training, more pay and smaller caseloads. Social service providers always had lawyers and the courts generally named an attorney for the children, but parents who did not qualify for attorneys from the Office of the Public Defender sometimes went without representation at key proceedings. Just under half the attorneys responding to a survey said they had training in guardianships before handling their first cases.

The courts, the state Bar Association and several state agencies should draft a state statute for the CINA cases for introduction during the 1999 General Assembly session because the current one is open to various interpretations.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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