Sins of omission

September 15, 2002

NO ONE EXPECTS Maryland to perform parenting miracles, but at minimum the state should be able to guarantee basic safety and medical services to the 11,500 children in its care.

So it's appalling and frightening that auditors reviewing state foster care records have uncovered major lapses: During reviews of 163 case files, auditors too often could find no evidence that children had been seen by doctors, dentists or therapists. No proof that their temporary guardians had passed criminal background checks. No evidence of regular caseworker visits. One child spent months in the home of an accused sex offender; one was not seen by a caseworker for 15 months.

The paper trail -- or lack of it -- leads to one conclusion: Maryland's foster care system fails to reliably monitor and care for some of its neediest children.

Department of Human Resources officials respond that they're getting help to the kids identified by the review. They plan better training for guardians and foster parents, revised recordkeeping rules and new digital photography tools for caseworkers.

That's not doing enough. The legislative audit, released in May but only now receiving public attention, should have prompted a statewide campaign to locate every child under DHR authority and put all their health and welfare records in order.

But as the audit points out and the chief of DHR confirms, there are not now enough caseworkers to make the regular, legally required rounds of the guardians and foster homes. The routine monitoring that saves lives and follows up on care falls hopelessly behind while crises get attention; auditors found the institution responds adequately to reports of abuse. What happened to prevention?

DHR officials estimate Maryland needs at least 730 caseworkers to serve its 11,500 wards -- about one for every 15 children. The current staffing is 114 caseworkers short of the target; the gap has been closing since 1998. But can this mean, following their logic, that at any time some 1,700 of the state's wards aren't adequately monitored?

The wide-ranging issues raised in the audit include disproportionately allocated resources, high staff burnout, medical assistance problems and myriad other challenges -- but none is as urgent as making sure that the children are seen.

For the long term, every alternative needs to be considered, including reorganization and efficiencies within DHR and expanded use of outside help. Until caseworkers' ranks are fully staffed, state leaders should exempt their positions from Maryland's 11-month-old hiring freeze, and hold DHR responsible for bringing every child's care up to date on a reasonable timetable.

State officials bristle at the suggestion that lapses in monitoring put Maryland's children at risk. Sadly, they don't have the proof to support such indignation: It's missing from the children's files.

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