State defies law on DSS

November 24, 2003|By Martin O'Malley

IT SHOULD have been a simple task.

The director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services was leaving. And it was time to find a new leader for an agency that is understaffed and, by any definition, in crisis.

Foster children have been placed with convicted sex offenders, only to be victimized. For 22 percent of children in out-of-home care, there is no evidence of a criminal background check or a review of the child abuse registry. Caseworkers have lost touch with children and their caregivers for up to 15 months. Some do not answer their phones. Caseworkers have removed children from homes on their 18th birthdays and dropped them off at adult homeless shelters.

According to two recent reports - one filed in U.S. District Court, the other by the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Audits - this chaos continues today, nearly a year after Ciara Jobes died a horrible death because no one looked into the mental health of her legal guardian or checked to see if she was being starved and beaten.

But while the agency is racked with disorder, the law governing the appointment of a local DSS director, an important member of every executive's Cabinet, is clear. "In each county and Baltimore City, the local director shall be appointed with the concurrence of the Secretary of Human Resources and, as appropriate: the county executive; the county commissioners; the Mayor of Baltimore City ... "

To the best of my knowledge, this cooperative appointment is how every local DSS director in Maryland's 24 counties has been selected since the law was passed - except one: the current interim DSS director in Baltimore. And now, unfortunately, the refusal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe to obey the law - and their own lawyers' advice - leaves us no recourse but to ask for judicial relief, which we have decided to do today in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

We simply are asking a court to direct Mr. McCabe and the governor to follow the law since they have ignored our other requests. We have tried to work together. The law requires that we jointly appoint a qualified candidate. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but after six months of trying, nothing else has worked.

About six months ago, we asked Mr. McCabe to begin a joint search for a new DSS director. But we were rebuffed. "[W]e are not planning to do a public and national search through newspapers or other publications," Mr. McCabe wrote. Without any basis in law or practice, he claimed the state was responsible for taking the lead in the search.

A few weeks later, Mr. McCabe informed my office that Arnold R. Tompkins, the former director of the Ohio Department of Human Services, was the governor's choice. Still trying to cooperate with our reluctant partner in this search, we met with Mr. Tompkins.

Following our meeting with Mr. Tompkins, we did a quick Internet search. We learned that he had been convicted in Ohio of public corruption - contract steering - just two years ago. When my staff mentioned this considerable problem, Mr. McCabe admitted he knew about Mr. Tompkins' conviction but said he had decided not to pass this information along to us. We were told not to worry: "It's a one-day story," Mr. McCabe said.

I told the secretary I could not concur, and again pleaded for a real, public search. Again, Mr. McCabe refused.

A few weeks later, we were told that Floyd R. Blair, a lawyer, was the governor's new choice. Mr. Blair was working at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as an internal liaison between several offices. He also had been a social worker in New York a decade ago, with no significant supervisory responsibilities. He had no executive experience in a large or even mid-size organization.

When I met with Mr. Blair, I asked him how his selection came about. He said he received a phone call out of the blue a few months ago and was asked to come meet with Mr. McCabe and his top staff. At the second of two meetings, he was offered his choice of three jobs - including the position as Baltimore's DSS director, which he accepted.

Mr. Blair confirmed the slipshod manner in which the search was conducted on The Marc Steiner Show on WYPR-FM. When asked whether he met the position's legal minimum five-year requirement for social services administration or supervision, he said: "If you're saying I don't have it, then I guess I don't have it. I'm not going to sit here and try to fudge that. I think that when I interviewed for the job, I didn't know anything about the process. I didn't know anything about the qualifications."

Some people have tried to portray the city's concerns over this search as simply politics. But if it were just politics, we would have gone public as soon as the governor and Mr. McCabe tried to appoint someone convicted of public corruption. We did not.

The current, dysfunctional state of Baltimore City DSS requires a person with a proven record of management leadership, not a candidate who requires on-the-job training. The city tried to work with the state to conduct a true, open and collaborative search for the best leader for DSS. Now, my conscience - and my responsibility under the law, which the state has refused to follow in letter or in spirit - won't let me give up this one without a fight.

Martin O'Malley is mayor of Baltimore.

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