DSS to improve its foster care in city, report says

Details included in filings in U.S. District Court by attorneys for children

State steps called `affirmative'

March 04, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Criticized for neglecting foster children and covering up the problems, the Baltimore Department of Social Services has promised to reduce caseloads and hire an independent auditor to boost the public's trust in the agency, according to a report released yesterday.

The improvements are outlined in U.S. District Court in Baltimore as part of a court-ordered evaluation of the department's progress toward meeting the requirements of a 15-year- old consent decree. That agreement, part of a class action lawsuit known as L.J. vs. Massinga, requires the state to provide better health care, education and protection for the city's foster children.

Attorneys representing 7,500 foster children in Baltimore said in court filings yesterday that despite recent positive steps, social services has a long way to go before it meets all of the requirements of the consent decree.

The state recently hired 30 more caseworkers for the city, but it will need to hire at least 43 more to meet the requirements of the decree, said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The state also will have to stop slashing the agency's budget and providing false information about the quality of its foster care programs and improve conditions for foster children, Mirviss said.

"A whole generation has not received the services and protections promised under the consent decree," Mirviss and attorney Gary Posner wrote in a report filed yesterday in federal court. "This cannot continue."

Mirviss and Posner commended state officials for taking "affirmative steps that are encouraging" in recent months. The state has lifted a hiring freeze and asked for an outside audit of the foster care program's disputed caseload figures that would be performed by the nonprofit Anne E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, the lawyers wrote.

"This administration is the first in memory (and probably the first ever) to acknowledge publicly that the BCDSS child welfare system is gravely dysfunctional and must be a high priority for significant reform," Mirviss and Posner wrote.

Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, said he wants to begin a new era of openness and reform for the city Department of Social Services, which is run by the state.

"If we expect change, we have to be honest about the weaknesses of our system," he said.

McCabe's decision means that the department will reduce the caseloads of its workers in some areas of foster care by a third, from one caseworker for every 30 children to one for every 20.

`A commitment'

"The governor and I have made a commitment to improve foster care in the city, and we recognize that there was a heavy stress on our caseworkers," the secretary said. "Providing additional staffing is part of our commitment."

In addition, McCabe said, he approached the Casey Foundation to act as an objective analyst to help resolve a dispute with plaintiffs' attorneys over the accuracy of the state's calculations of caseloads, workers and children.

In their most recent report filed in federal court, the plaintiffs said: "Defendants' caseload statistics are false and apparently have been false for years, probably failing to account for more than 1,000 children."

John Mattingly, senior fellow for child welfare policy at the foundation, said his organization is considering the state's request for help. The foundation has helped 20 states improve their child welfare systems and end class action lawsuits.

In 1984, lawyers filed the class action lawsuit against the state on behalf of a 6-year old boy, identified only by his initials, L.J., and all other foster children in the city.

L.J. was placed by the state in the home of a violent alcoholic who beat him so badly that scars crisscrossed nearly every inch of his chest, back, arms and stomach.

After five years of litigation, attorneys signed a consent decree that required sweeping improvements in the care of foster children. Among other things, the decree requires that foster children receive regular medical care, live in homes with adults whose criminal records have been checked and have monthly meetings with case managers.

Conflicting conclusions

For years, the two sides have been submitting reports to the court with opposite conclusions. The state has long maintained that it was meeting all the requirements of the consent decree. But the plaintiffs complained in November that state officials were covering up problems and putting children at risk of death by abuse, a risk that attorneys likened to "sitting on a time bomb."

In the report submitted yesterday, attorneys for the children for the first time gave the state credit for moving toward reform.

"This is the first time the defendants have stepped up to the plate instead of taking an attitude of denial," Mirviss said in an interview.

Besides providing more staff and money, the state must recruit more foster families to prevent an acute shortage of homes from growing into a crisis, according to the report.

It says the state also should fire workers with bad attitudes and provide better health care for children. About 40 percent of foster children are not getting required health examinations.

"To be sure, there are many hard-working and dedicated caseworkers and supervisors at BCDSS," the report says. "But little has been done to weed out their less industrious and caring counterparts."

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