Improving Maryland's child welfare system

November 26, 2003|By Christopher J. McCabe

LIKE MOST states, Maryland faces the enormous challenge of significantly improving the way we protect our most vulnerable children. Many problems have existed for far too long in our child welfare system.

One example is the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, the largest of our local agencies, which has operated under a federal consent decree for child welfare for 15 years in the child abuse case of L. J. vs. Massinga. The consent decree requires the state Department of Human Resources to comply with certain conditions to protect children. We're making progress. When plaintiffs in the case recently filed their response to our 29th semiannual report, they stated they were "encouraged greatly" by this administration's efforts to achieve compliance.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and I, however, realize that we still have our work cut out for us -- not just in Baltimore, but across the state.

We are seeing more children come into the foster care system with greater needs than has been the case in the past, and our human services system must become nimble enough to care for them and all of the 11,000 foster care children in the state.

One tool that will help identify our problems and measure our success in serving young people is the Child and Family Services Review being undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in an attempt to raise the standard of child welfare. This process establishes new national standards and holds states accountable by requiring plans to remedy shortcomings. We welcome this review.

We are among the last states to go through this extensive scrutiny, and we are eager to work with the federal government and our community partners to improve protections for children in potential danger.

The federal review will evaluate our child protection systems, giving us an opportunity to measure ourselves against the high national standards that HHS has set for all states.

These standards are necessarily tough, requiring states to achieve certain benchmarks in each of the seven categories for measuring our results in keeping children safe. So far, each of the 36 states to complete the process has been required to submit a program improvement plan. No state has come close to reaching the federal goals in all categories. Only five of the 36 states met the first federal benchmark for results: Children are protected from abuse and neglect. Other results:

Children are safely maintained at home when possible (four states met standards).

Children have permanent and stable living arrangements (none).

Continuity of family relationships is preserved (four).

Families have enhanced ability to care for children's needs (none).

Children receive appropriate educational services (eight).

Children receive services for physical and mental health needs (none).

We expect that Maryland will be required, like every other state, to develop an improvement plan. But we are not waiting for the federal government, having already begun to make substantial changes on our own.

We have made significant yet unfinished strides toward improving service delivery in Baltimore. We have renovated the dilapidated Hilton Heights DSS facility in collaboration with the state Department of General Services, invested in a $4 million telephone system that caseworkers desperately need to do their jobs and have installed 1,000 computers for frontline workers at the Baltimore DSS.

Most significantly, Governor Ehrlich has appointed a strong leader, Floyd R. Blair, as interim director of the Baltimore DSS. Mr. Blair will play a key role in reorganizing the department so that it moves faster and better to care for children in need.

We also will do a better job of reallocating our resources to provide better direct service to children and improve the organizational climate at the Baltimore DSS. It is difficult to serve 21st century needs with a 20th century system; working with our community partners, we will build a system that responds to modern challenges.

You will hear about more changes, organizational and otherwise, that we plan for our state office in Baltimore in the near future.

Meanwhile, the federal review will help immensely in setting a new standard for performance. This is not a pass-fail exercise. Rather, this is an opportunity to strive toward a model child welfare system for Maryland.

Christopher J. McCabe is secretary of the state Department of Human Resources.

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