Time for a thaw

May 25, 2004

WHILE MUCH attention -- and a little more money -- is paid to the disaster-prone Baltimore City Department of Social Services, many of the counties' departments are quietly withering. But kids in crisis deserve the state's good care no matter where they live.

The Department of Human Resources, which oversees all the county operations, has passed along the suffering under Maryland's continuing hiring freeze. Social workers in Baltimore County, for example, are completing the same number of child protective services investigations as before the October 2001 freeze, but with 17 fewer social workers -- 23 percent of the 73 positions allotted -- according to county DSS figures. Similar troubles are undermining DSS work in Wicomico, Frederick, Charles and Howard counties.

And in Baltimore County's division handling foster care and adoption cases this year, 30 percent fewer social workers will be expected to serve an estimated 110 percent of the number of children as last year. Foster care caseloads are nearing 30 children per caseworker, 50 percent more than the department's stated goal of 20 and double the standard set in the state's 1998 Child Welfare Workforce Initiative.

With limited time and increasing demand, caseworkers are making more painful decisions: Spend a few hours taking a child to her court hearing or take another child to his counseling appointment? Or neither, if a report of suspected abuse comes in?

Pressure is greater to close cases sooner, and to monitor cases less. And the chances grow that a judgment call will be wrong -- which could be fatal, as the deaths of the twin girls two weeks ago show. Increasingly, more dollars and time are being spent on investigations and out-of-home placements and less on prevention and early intervention. Such a policy feeds on itself -- ever more families needing major, costly assistance when a less-expensive helping hand early on could have stalled their slide.

Baltimore County's DSS, which cares for the second-largest number of kids in the state, has posted good results over the years, including the lowest median length of stay in the state system. But the continuing attrition and increased caseloads and paperwork are taking their toll. Caseworker overload leads to children staying in care longer before being adopted or returned to their families, and more returning to state care, according to the federal General Accounting Office's review of foster care systems nationwide. Not to mention turnover: Six Baltimore County DSS workers left the department in the past month.

Money can't change everything, but filling the counties' frozen positions would make a big difference. At the least, the Department of Human Resources should speed up the process of exempting newly empty slots from the freeze; the agency did plan to spend that money already. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should seek out more cash to feed these skin-and-bones departments. After all, prevention is cheaper than cure.

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