Foster children remain at risk

Despite '88 order to fix city system, problems persist, attorneys contend

State denies failure to comply

December 30, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

More than 20 years ago, a Baltimore school counselor noticed something disturbing in a classroom: a 6-year-old boy was sticking tacks into his hands, calling himself ugly and stupid.

As it turned out, the boy was a foster child who had been placed in the home of a violent alcoholic by the Baltimore Department of Social Services. Lifting up his shirt revealed that nearly every inch of his chest, back, arms and stomach was crisscrossed with scars.

The child was placed in a psychiatric hospital, and his case inspired a 1984 class action lawsuit that resulted in a consent decree demanding a comprehensive overhaul of the city's dangerously mismanaged foster care system.

But almost two decades later, the department has made few of the improvements required by the federal court, and foster children continue to be abused and neglected, according to lawyers representing 7,500 city foster children.

A combination of strategic errors, political pressure and constitutional limits have hobbled the court's ability - under U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg and court-appointed monitor George Beall, a former U.S. attorney - to force the repair of the city's broken foster care system, according to veteran observers of class action suits.

Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old girl who was found tortured, starved and beaten to death a year ago this month, was an example of hundreds of children who continue to be at risk because the department is understaffed and lax about safety, according to a report by attorneys Mitchell Y. Mirviss and Gary Posner, who represented the city's foster children in the class action suit.

"If we can't take care of the most vulnerable and needy children trusted to our care, then we as a society are dysfunctional," said Mirviss. "These are not just foster children, but wards of the state. And every citizen of this state has an obligation to ensure that children entrusted to our care are not neglected or abused."

The consent decree demands that foster children have monthly meetings with case managers, who are not overworked, receive regular medical care, attend school and live in homes with adults whose criminal records have been checked, among numerous other requirements.

As evidence that the state often fails to meet these requirements, the plaintiffs' attorneys point to a May 2002 report of the state's Office of Legislative Audits that found that 44 percent of foster children do not get to the required monthly meetings with their caseworkers; 46 percent live in homes run by people for whom the state has not performed a criminal background check; and 77 percent live in homes that do not have the required annual fire safety inspections.

State rejects blame

State officials in charge of the city's foster care program have denied for years that the agency is out of compliance with the consent decree in L.J. vs. Massinga (named after the initials of the otherwise unnamed child and Ruth Massinga, former state secretary of the Department of Human Services).

"The department has met the test for compliance with the consent decree," wrote Assistant Attorney General Catherine M. Shultz in an Aug. 6 report submitted to the court. "The department remains committed to the children in its care and their families, and to the continuous improvement of the Baltimore city foster care program."

Since the lawsuit began, the plaintiffs and defendants have been unable to agree on basic facts about the quality of care for foster children in the city. Their stark disagreements are outlined in boxes of reports they've been required to file every six months since 1988 to document compliance.

The state keeps reporting that it has been "reasonably diligent and energetic" in its efforts to care for foster children. But the plaintiffs respond that the state's reports are false, and that the state refuses to let them see the children or their records to verify their condition.

The state hides the truth behind assertions that they need to protect the confidentiality of the children, even from their own lawyers, the plaintiffs' attorneys complain.

"The defendants are far out of compliance with the consent decree ... in such vital areas as health care, education ... and safety," Mirviss and Posner wrote in a Nov. 7 report in court files. "The rosy portrait of substantial compliance painted by the defendants ... is wrong, and the supporting data is itself unreliable and deeply flawed."

The lawsuit has a complex history. The original advocates for the foster children, including former lead attorney William Grimm, made a "naive" mistake by agreeing not to include an enforcement mechanism for the consent decree, Grimm said. As part of the 1988 compromise, the lawyers allowed language that says the defendants cannot be fined or jailed for disobeying the agreement under most circumstances.

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