Audit finds lapses in Maryland's foster care

Lack of medical exams, documented visits noted

August 23, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Lawyers who represent children in Maryland's foster care system say a legislative audit that criticizes the state's care of its young wards documents poor conditions they have been complaining about for years.

The audit of 163 cases of the 11,500 in the state system -- the bulk of them from Baltimore -- found no evidence that many children were getting medical or dental care or were enrolled in school. It also showed that social workers weren't visiting children as often as the law required to make sure they were safe.

Joan Little, head of the child advocacy unit for the Legal Aid Bureau, said the audit is consistent with the cases of children being represented by her staff. "They were victimized once in their parents' care, and they get victimized again by the Department of Social Services when workers are not investigating and following up on their cases the way they ought to," she said.

The audit, published by the Office of Legislative Audits in May, examined activity documented in the children's case files between January 2000 and June 2001. The review found:

A third of the children appeared to lack regular medical examinations. In one case, a child whose court order specified an HIV test be performed never got one. In another, a child hadn't gotten a blood test to see if his lead level had declined -- two years after the test was recommended.

Children didn't appear to have dental exams in 86 of 124 cases -- 69 percent -- in which they were required.

Criminal background checks weren't always completed on foster parents, leading one child to be placed in the home of an accused sex offender.

In nearly half the cases reviewed, social workers did not document some required monthly visits with children and their foster parents. In one case, there was no contact documented for 16 months.

The state's own data showed only 79 percent of children got required monthly visits as recently as June.

Emelda P. Johnson, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, didn't dispute the findings yesterday. She said children aren't being visited often enough because there aren't enough caseworkers. The department has asked to hire 106 more in its 2003 budget, an increase of 14 percent, she said.

"To be perfectly candid, because there are vacancies and they are critical vacancies, the caseloads don't shape up that way" for monthly visits, Johnson said.

The audit included a survey of foster care workers. Of 80 who responded to the question, 70 percent said they had more foster care cases than they felt they could effectively handle. Twenty-one percent said they didn't have sufficient contact with the children they supervised.

In addition to asking for more caseworkers, the DHR has made other changes, including requiring that caseworkers put copies of children's report cards in their files to show they are going to school, said Linda Mouzon, head of the department's Social Services Administration.

It also is working with state health officials to make sure that children are getting physical examinations and has reviewed the audited cases to make sure those children have received the right services, she said.

Sharon Rubenstein, communications director for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, said the state should go further to solve the problems. "When you look at what happened in Florida, you cannot take a laissez-faire attitude when you have clear evidence of probable failures," she said.

But Johnson bristled at those who would compare the department's performance to the system in Florida, where state officials acknowledged they had lost a 5-year-old girl after failing to check on her for 15 months. That system's top official resigned 10 days ago in the wake of the news.

"You can be worried when people at the controls are asleep," Johnson said. "We aren't asleep."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, head of the city's juvenile court, said he thought workers by and large showed that they kept up regular contact with children in the system. "I think for the most part in the cases I see, there has been routine, regular contact," he said.

Mitchell Mirviss, one of the attorneys who represented foster children in a 1984 lawsuit that led to a consent decree to improve the system, said that while social workers aren't seeing children as regularly as they should, it does not appear that children are becoming "missing."

"Clearly, some of these kids could, if they're not being seen," he cautioned.

Mirviss said attorneys involved in the consent decree are doing their own investigation of how widespread the problems are, and are waiting for a more complete response from the state.

"We are trying to gather individual examples to document both the findings in the audit and its implications for the decree," he said.

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