The verdict is in: Program tapping jurors' generosity helps foster children

Balto. County agency has received $17,200 in donations since fall

March 19, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County jurors are entitled to $15 a day, but not everyone is collecting it.

County officials say that a surprising number of the 80 prospective jurors brought in each day are donating the pay to charity.

The Generous Juror Program started in the fall and has funneled $17,200 in donations from jurors to a fund for foster children administered by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

Nancy Tilton, the county jury commissioner, said social workers asked her in September to solicit jurors for contributions because similar programs in Harford and Howard counties were raising money for foster children.

Tilton said the results have surprised her.

She expected to collect about half of the amount that's been donated since the program began in November. Some jurors not only have returned their jury pay but have written checks for up to $100, she said.

"The response has been just overwhelming," Tilton said.

G. Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts, said the number of jury donation programs is increasing nationally.

The first began in 1989 in Dallas, where jurors have donated $1.4 million for at-risk youth, he said. Jurors in Cincinnati donate money to pay for courthouse tours, and donations in Nevada help pay for programs for abused women.

"I think it shows that some people need the money and some people don't," Munsterman said.

John F. Shatto, Howard County's court administrator, said the program there began in 1996 when county officials learned that some jurors were declining to accept their pay.

"Over the years, people were turning the money back, saying `Just put it back into the court system,'" Shatto said.

Shatto said Howard jurors donate between $1,200 and $1,500 a month to foster care. "It's one of the easiest programs in the world to set up, and it provides thousands of dollars to kids who need it," he said.

Paulyne Finck, assistant jury commissioner in Harford County, said the county's effort began in April 1999 and was modeled after Howard's. But Harford donors have proved more generous, donating $38,000 - more than $3,000 a month - last year.

"We're really didn't expect to get the level of donations we did. We expected maybe about $1,000 a month," Finck said.

In the three Maryland counties, jurors are given a brief sales pitch by a court worker. Funds are spent on everything from academic tutoring to teddy bears and suitcases. Social workers have purchased disposable cameras so foster parents can take photographs for albums that document birthdays and other highlights of the child's life.

"The money helps a great deal," said Jennifer Brand, a Baltimore County social worker who works with foster families.

Barbara L. Gradet, director of the county's Department of Social Services, said many of the 1,000 children who enter the county's foster care system each year are from extremely poor families.

"Many of those children come to us literally with all of their belongings in a garbage bag," Gradet said.

Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, said donations from jurors go into the Fund for Social Welfare, which is administered by a nonprofit agency overseen by an independent board that includes two department staffers.

Robinson said foster parents are paid between $535 and $550 per month for each child to cover costs associated with room and board. But, she said, the money doesn't always go far enough.

"There's usually not an awful lot left over for the special things, like tutoring, or sending them away to a camp, or maybe an alarm clock or an overnight bag if they do go away to camp," Robinson said.

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