Are Democrats responsible for global warming, too?

April 03, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. calls it partisan harassment, but he shouldn't be able to duck some alarming questions about child welfare in Maryland.

We'll put them in true-false format.

Abusive conditions in the juvenile justice system have worsened during the Ehrlich administration. The questions are inevitably political because Mr. Ehrlich campaigned on a promise to improve things. True or false?

Foster children are or were sleeping in cars because there was no foster family to take them and apparently no other accommodations. True or false?

Impossible caseloads in the foster care system, possibly in violation of federal court orders, are being dealt with by assigning children to phantom workers - workers no longer employed by the city or the state. If this was done, it apparently was done to make the number of cases per worker seem smaller than it is. True or false?

An independent monitor reported the juvenile detention problems. Serious lapses in the foster care system were asserted by Michelle Lane, a fired Ehrlich administration employee. Her reports were greeted as intelligence from inside a fortress shrouded in bureaucracy and confidentiality rules. She's not a Democrat. Another former state employee has said Ms. Lane's observations are accurate. House Speaker Michael E. Busch says the General Assembly will investigate after the legislative session ends.

Governor Ehrlich greets the prospect of an investigation with three words: Bring it on. Democrats are behind all of it. If they are - and the charges are accurate - Democrats should be congratulated.

The state Department of Human Resources says problems with foster care began with previous Democratic administrations. Much progress has been made under Mr. Ehrlich and Christopher J. McCabe, the department secretary, according to a department spokesman.

Mr. McCabe is a fine fellow, a former state senator and a father who would not want kids sleeping in cars. He wouldn't want caseloads so taxing that children are infrequently seen by workers responsible for their well-being. But he's been under pressure to improve things or face federal fines - and he can't be regarded as an objective evaluator of his department's performance.

It's likely the secretary's efforts in an extremely difficult job are limited. He can't do anything about the overloads if he doesn't have enough workers. The administration's priorities are saving money, but do those objectives square with the idea of protecting kids?

There's a $400 million budget slush fund socked away for 2006, an election year. Can't touch that? Why not? Are kids endangered by insufficient care? Is the interminable wait for slot machine revenue having a deadly impact on critical services?

This proud, progressive and wealthy state shouldn't have to tolerate foster kid sleepovers in cars - or abusive situations in juvenile detention centers.

But maybe they're actually sleeping at Motel 6 or the Inner Harbor Marriott? Maybe they're not on lockdown. Maybe they're going to the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium. Which is it, abusive treatment or field trips? People can handle the answers. They know these are difficult jobs. But they're not going to be patient with political dodging.

Democratic administrations presided over boot camps where kids were beaten. Mr. Ehrlich roundly condemned the practice and ran as a juvenile justice reformer. Now he has to produce. Impossible caseloads were not invented by Republicans, either. But cooking the books to avoid federal sanctions isn't the answer.

Mr. Ehrlich is the governor now. He's responsible. He can cry smear and accuse people of blackmailing him with unpleasant disclosures, as he has done recently. He can say he doesn't know the whistleblower - as if she were some sort of wild thing sent in by the Democrats. It doesn't matter if he knows her or not. What matters is the quality of service his administration provides.

If the charges are false, if the problems have been solved, the governor can show he cares by conducting a review. If a previous administration should shoulder the blame, he can make that case. But, again, it's been his watch.

Illegal lockdowns and physical abuse must end. Foster kids bunking in cars must end. Cooking the caseload books must end.

Bring it on.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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