Sitting on a time bomb

November 24, 2003

SHAMEFUL IS too nice a word for how Maryland treats its most fragile wards -- and how Marylanders continue to stand by while it happens.

The last half of 2002 alone brought plenty of stories of critical holes in the child welfare system, many listed in the latest report filed this month as part of an ongoing class-action settlement. A girl was repeatedly sexually abused in a therapeutic foster care home that had been the setting of two earlier incidents of alleged abuse; not only did she not get counseling, but the incident wasn't reported to her attorney until a year later.

A mentally disabled boy was sent to a group home for delinquent youths, where he was sexually assaulted. A foster mother gave a girl only a cup of soup at night -- and charged her rent. A boy with a broken ankle was delivered to a foster parent, who later took him herself to the emergency room. And don't forget the ultimate horror story of missed opportunities in the torture and killing of Ciara Jobes, whose guardian is charged in her death.

It's been 14 years since the state agreed that Baltimore's Department of Social Services wasn't properly treating the children in its care and pledged to follow the rules of a consent decree. The state still is not in compliance.

It's been four years since the legislature set limits on the caseloads foster care workers could carry; they still carry more.

It's been 18 months since a state audit of foster care records described major lapses, including failure to do background checks on temporary guardians, and no records of caseworker visits or medical or dental care. The lapses still exist, according to child welfare lawyers and advocates.

DSS and the state Department of Human Resources say they cannot guarantee a perfect safety record -- but perfect is hardly the point here: By law, relatives and foster families must pass background checks, but none is on record for 22 percent of all foster homes in the city, according to court-mandated reports. Caseworkers are to visit their foster care wards once a month; 22 percent of foster children didn't get one visit in a three-month period in 2002. Almost half of all foster care homes don't have annual fire-safety checks.

That is not just the failure of broken parents and lax government agencies, but also of citizens who fail to demand better. Worker caseloads are too high, but agencies' budgets are trimmed and jobs are frozen and no one pushes to restore them. Children walk around the street half-starved, and no one calls attention to them. Ciara Jobes was truant because she was locked in the house, but no one came around to check on her. Small wonder kids are tough these days -- the adults are tougher.

Officials also say these latest stories weren't "on their watch." But DHR chief Christopher J. McCabe has been on the watch now for 10 months, and the department is still promising its new plan "soon." Tell it to the 2-year-old and the 10-month-old. And pardon us for reserving judgment until the next set of reports comes out -- due at year's end. The stories better be good.

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