Social Services to get 50 hires

Ehrlich move makes good on campaign vow to city

Hiring follows criticism of agency

Most new caseworkers to serve in child welfare

December 05, 2003|By Tom Pelton, Jamie Stiehm and Allison Klein | Tom Pelton, Jamie Stiehm and Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Declaring that the state is taking a "major step toward reforming" Baltimore's troubled Department of Social Services, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration announced yesterday that it will hire 50 caseworkers to serve the city's neediest families.

The hiring, which will cost more than $2 million a year, follows criticism that the department is understaffed, mismanaged and led by an interim director, Floyd Blair, with almost no experience. The agency, which is run by the state, oversees welfare programs and the care of more than 7,500 foster children in the city.

Mayor Martin O'Malley sued Ehrlich last week, claiming that the governor's appointment of a novice manager to run a chaotic agency endangered children and violated the law because it did not have city approval.

Ehrlich has continued to stand behind his selection of Blair, and by hiring the additional workers, he has made good on a campaign promise from October of last year to end a freeze of more than a year on the hiring of child welfare workers.

"This is the beginning of a new era for the Baltimore Department of Social Services," said Ehrlich in a written statement. "We recognized on Day One of this administration that the Baltimore DSS needed a comprehensive plan to provide the level of service that the city's children need and deserve."

The new employees will include 30 child welfare workers for the city. This will boost the number of workers for foster children and for children in the care of relatives by about 8 percent, from 380 to 410, according to figures in an August report by the agency.

But child advocates cautioned that the state's numbers have been unreliable in the past, and suggested that the statewide system is still several hundred workers short.

Recently, the department added 1,000 new computers for caseworkers and began installing a $4 million phone system with voice mail, which many workers have lacked. Thirteen social workers were hired this past summer, the beginning of what state officials described as a systematic overhaul.

Understaffing at the department, which has about 2,400 employees, was one of the complaints of a 1984 class action lawsuit against the state by representatives of foster children who claimed they were being neglected and abused.

Those complaints remained unresolved almost two decades later, with children's advocates saying that almost all conditions of a 1988 consent decree meant to improve the lives of foster children remained unmet.

Criticism of the agency intensified last year when 15-year-old Ciara Jobes was tortured and killed. Her guardian has been charged in her death.

Mitchell Y. Mirviss, one of the lawyers leading the class action suit, known as L.J. vs. Massinga, said yesterday that hiring the additional employees was "great news" and "a significant step forward" for the department.

`Very good news'

"There has been a hiring freeze for a couple years, so this is very good news," said Jann K. Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We are thankful that the governor has honored his campaign pledge to work toward an adequate child welfare work force."

Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, whose agency runs the city department, said, "Our assessment was that we haven't always treated our customers the way we should when they ask for help, with the respect they deserve."

McCabe conducted a review of the city department and said the results were disturbing. "What I found was really troubling. There were caseworkers with no computers, antiquated telephone systems," McCabe said. "We believe we will make a difference," especially by improving the staff-to-child ratio, he said.

O'Malley expressed guarded approval yesterday of Ehrlich's announcement, which he said was delayed too long.

Largest caseload in Md.

"We've been asking for months and months to fill the vacancies of child welfare workers," O'Malley said. "I'm very glad to see this step in the right direction because we have the largest caseload in the state. ... Maybe less people will slip through the cracks. It has to help."

Some in City Hall suggested that the governor's move appeared to be a public relations maneuver designed to make Blair's appointment more palatable. But O'Malley said the governor's choice of Blair does not sit any easier because of yesterday's gesture.

According to a recent report filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, each foster care worker has a caseload average of at least 20, far more than the recommended standard of 12 to 15 cases per worker set by the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America. County executives and O'Malley have lobbied Ehrlich to end the state hiring freeze on caseworkers.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, said yesterday that caseload ratio is important, as well as the quality of the people who are hired. "You cannot solve the problems of DSS by increasing numbers alone, but it certainly is improvement," he said.

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