Filling the gaps

December 02, 2003|By Susan Burger

THE NEWS MEDIA recently have made many of us more aware of the plight of Baltimore's abused and neglected children, alerting the public to children being harmed in the child welfare system in Baltimore City - a system whose responsibility it is to protect them.

The problem is serious enough that a report has been filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore asserting that the city's Department of Social Services (DSS) is "sitting on a time bomb" and is putting children in the system at risk because of "a lax approach and overburdened caseworkers."

This reflects a Department of Legislative Services' audit several years ago of Maryland's Social Service Administration, which concluded that there are significant questions about the monitoring and delivery of services to the children in out-of-home care programs throughout the state.

The audit noted that about 10 percent of the children studied were subject to reported abuse or neglect while in foster care. It said there was no evidence in 28 percent of the cases that the child was receiving recommended therapy and there was no documentation in 35 percent of the cases to substantiate that the child was attending school.

Sixty-two percent of Maryland children in out-of-home placements are from Baltimore City, where DSS caseworkers carry between 30 to 60 cases. A hiring freeze has limited the numbers of caseworkers for several years. Fewer workers mean higher caseloads. Higher caseloads mean less time on each case and more stress, which ultimately leads to an extremely high rate of burnout. Burnout leads to high staff turnover, for which replacements cannot be hired.

What this translates to for the lives of children in the system is, for example, teen-agers who don't know if they have graduated from high school when they ask their caseworkers about applying to community college or vocational programs. Children medicated and institutionalized for years, neglected in the system when family resources could be investigated and approved for placement. Children without the therapy they need who exhibit behaviors that are disruptive and sometimes dangerous to others or themselves, which then results in a cycle of court hearings and out-of-home placements that may be only marginally better environments than the ones from which they were removed.

What can be done to help the system recover from years of diminishing budgets and neglect? Mayor Martin O'Malley does not think the answer is Floyd R. Blair as DSS director. According to Mr. O'Malley, Mr. Blair does not have the required managerial experience for the job.

Having heard Mr. Blair speak to a group of social service professionals last week, some of us concluded that he had little new to say about the very serious problems that exist in the system.

While the mayor and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hash out who will lead DSS, let's not lose sight of the many nonprofit organizations outside of the department that provide services for abused and neglected children. They are the agencies that provide therapeutic homes for children with special needs, such as the Association for Retarded Citizens of Baltimore; Advocates for Children and Youth, which lobbies for children in Annapolis and provides public awareness on children's issues; and a host of group homes and evaluation and therapeutic services.

With shrinking budgets and growing numbers of children in the system, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA volunteers) from the nonprofit CASA of Baltimore are in a unique position to make sure that the abuse and neglect that the children originally suffered at home don't continue as abuse and neglect at the hands of the system.

CASA of Baltimore's mission is to ensure that abused and neglected children involved in the juvenile court system are placed in safe, permanent homes and that consideration is given to their educational, medical and social service needs. This is accomplished through the recruitment, training, support and professional supervision of volunteers who are appointed by the juvenile court to give a voice to what is in the child's best interest and to ensure that cases don't fall through the cracks.

CASA of Baltimore is a tool that the court system can use to change the lives of abused and neglected children by helping to ensure that the system works in their best interest, one child at a time. CASA also provides an opportunity for ordinary citizens to make a difference in a child's life.

Given the current state of affairs, the child welfare system must take advantage of all the help it can get.

Susan Burger is executive director of CASA of Baltimore Inc.

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