Cheaping out on children

February 15, 2005

THE STATE'S new budget for the Department of Juvenile Services has set the agency up for more failure. It reads like Year Two of a reform blueprint that hasn't yet had a Year One. This year's crop of children - and more - could thus be left in the lurch.

The General Assembly should insist on a more practical approach, one that ensures adequate facilities remain in place while the department works to improve care in the future. It would mean a real increase in funding, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pledged, not a reverse bait and switch.

The budget proposes to boost funds for community-based treatment for children found delinquent and needing rehabilitation from $1 million to $6.2 million, and to give control of the money to local boards. That's a big step forward in the department's drive to treat more kids in or near their homes rather than committing them to out-of-town facilities.

But the governor has simultaneously cut twice that from the fund that pays for the current out-of-town placements - from $30.9 million to $20.1 million.

State officials seem to be assuming that thoroughly vetted, community-based providers with high-quality programs will be ready to take in hundreds of juveniles with very different needs by July 1. That's not realistic, considering it took the department itself nearly six months to launch Baltimore's evening reporting center, which still handles only a handful of youths. And while caring for kids closer to home will save money in the long run, it certainly won't in the startup years.

DJS has had a continuing problem with juveniles languishing in its detention centers because there is no space in a proper placement - community-based or out of town. Often these kids, frustrated and not getting better, are the ones who cause the trouble that makes news. Cutting any funding for placing them in suitable programs until there are enough available would exacerbate the problem.

This budget also complicates DJS' mission by forcing the agency to rely more on contract workers - despite years spent trying to reduce those short-term, dead-end jobs it has found difficult to fill. Some contracting offers flexibility, which is good as DJS works to reform itself; too many empty contractor slots is not.

Further, the department appears to be losing workers in total, from 2,352 on the payroll or in contracted positions to 2,308, for more short-term savings. The difference may be small, but it's significant in an agency already short-staffed.

DJS has a history of running short of funds and requiring a bail-out later. For example, this year's budget includes a make-up payment of $4.4 million overspent in the past two years on the same placement facilities that Governor Ehrlich now proposes to cut by $10.8 million.

That can't continue. It's time to be honest about how much money it takes to run this beleaguered department - and to get about the business of fixing systemic problems. Maryland's children have waited long enough.

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