Game over

July 13, 2004

NOW THAT the Baltimore Circuit Court has reminded the executive branch that state statute applies to it, too, could everyone please get back to fixing the city's beleaguered Department of Social Services?

Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock reaffirmed the definition of "concurrence" -- agreement and consent of all parties -- in her decision yesterday upholding the city's argument that the state had acted improperly in unilaterally hiring Floyd R. Blair to head Baltimore's DSS.

By law, the city and state are required to agree on the person who will lead the agency. The state had argued that Mr. Blair's was an "interim" appointment and such appointments aren't spelled out in the statute so don't need the mayor or the city social services commission's agreement. That was "long-standing administrative interpretation." Not too long-standing: The state last summer cleared the previous interim director with the city, as Judge Murdock pointed out. Not to mention that in this case, "interim" meant until Mayor Martin O'Malley "realizes Blair's talents and agrees to make him permanent director," as state Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe told The Sun's Tom Pelton in November.

Wrong. Now city and state officials have 45 days to find a permanent director everyone can agree on or the case returns to court. Perhaps Mr. Blair, in charge until a new chief is found, can use the time to write an up-to-date primer for his successor. The city cannot afford to wait still longer.

The Department of Human Resources and its DSS offices suffer from years of underfunding and lack of attention. The state couldn't find the money to stretch out a small stipend to disabled men during this past winter because too many applied for it. In the city, some children in foster care aren't getting the services they need, and some families have trouble getting the food and medical vouchers to which they are entitled.

Worse, DSS isn't closely listening to or cooperating with city and other agencies whose services must dovetail to maintain a sturdy safety net for city residents. Imagine if the agency had acted on the January memo from the city's Child Welfare Reform Committee calling for, among other things, caseworkers working around the clock to immediately respond to child abuse questions. That could have made a difference in the case of a 17-year-old foster care runaway whose first child was taken away because of abuse and who was allowed to walk out of the hospital in May with her two newborn babies after a social worker's phone call to a DSS help line didn't turn up any red flags. Both babies were dead before they reached 2 months old.

We expect all our elected officials to work together for the good of the 50,000 struggling people who look to the city's DSS for help, not bicker over who gets to pick the new chief -- and never again to the extent that they have to sue one another in court.

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