Still waiting

August 15, 2004

SIXTEEN YEARS after the fact, Baltimore's Department of Social Services and its parent, the state Department of Human Resources, still don't honor their court agreement to improve services to children in foster care. How long must it take?

The latest evidence of same-old, same-old is the department's own six-month report, required by the consent decree it signed in a 1988 class-action lawsuit charging it with poorly caring for its charges.

DSS reported it had failed to get caseworkers to visit each of their current charges each month in 24 percent of cases in the first half of 2004; up from 22 percent in the last half of 2003 and 14 percent in the first half of 2003. It entered into family services plans with only 63 percent of families so far this year, a dip from 67 percent late last year, though better than 51 percent recorded in the first half of that year.

It has 1,948 foster-care homes available; it had 2,176 in December 2003, 2,796 in December 2002. Many homes fall off the list because the foster child is adopted into the home; new caregivers must be recruited each year. The money enticement hasn't changed in 13 years: $535 to $550 a month; some caregivers say they don't get much other support from the department. Because of the lack of foster homes, the average number of children waiting for proper placement has been increasing steadily.

That's the wrong direction.

It's commendable that DSS has finally cracked open its doors, reporting such things as caseloads and numbers of children receiving health screenings, and agreeing that some of the numbers are bad after 15 years of steady denial. But acknowledgment isn't improvement, and the plans offered up publicly so far are vague and gossamer-thin. Fixing forms so they ask the right questions, adding training requirements, organizing workgroups to write more reports and make more recommendations are all fine, but where are the changes that would most affect these kids' lives?

Where is the commitment to check up on caseworkers, ensuring that each child is visited at least once a month? Or outreach to add homes to the roster to replace the ones that fall off?

There has been so little progress that it's time the plaintiffs in the case, representing the more than 7,500 children in DSS care, consider returning to court to find an enforceable remedy. Similar consent decrees in New Jersey and Tennessee include more sanctions for noncompliance; Maryland's hinges on whether DSS is acting in good faith, a squishy concept and one with no meaning to the kids it serves.

DHR must improve care at least by increasing the number of caseworkers by October 1 or risk losing $1.5 million in budgeted funds (it has had five years to reach this goal). The same-old department would opt to pay the fine; one trusts the self-declared new regime will instead solve the problem.

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