Child-welfare advocates press for reform of Md. DHR

Legislative audit leads to greater push for bill

April 06, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Child-welfare advocates are ramping up efforts to promote reform at the state Department of Human Resources after the release of a legislative audit that documented continuing and serious lapses in the care of nearly 9,000 children living in Maryland's foster homes and group facilities.

With less than a week left in the 2005 legislative session, advocates said yesterday that they still hope to win passage of a bill that would require changes in the way the department keeps track of foster children, as well as language in the state budget that would require quarterly staffing reports.

"How much more evidence does the legislature need before they do something really definitive?" asked James McComb, chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children. "The current administration has been in place well over two years and the characteristics of the system today are worse. Things are not better."

A report released Monday by the Office of Legislative Audits found that while improvements have been made at the Department of Human Resources, the agency still was not providing the services necessary to ensure children's "emotional, physical and educational well-being."

The audit, which covered March 2001 to May 2004, found that case files for 35 percent of children in foster care presented no evidence that they were attending school. Legislative auditor Bruce A. Myers said yesterday that his office would have accepted a report card as proof of school attendance, but that the files did not contain such information.

The audit also reported that 40 percent of children were not receiving dental exams, and 31 percent were not being visited by case workers on a monthly basis as required. It also revealed that the department had licensed or relicensed group homes without doing criminal background checks.

However, the agency improved its performance in terms of children receiving recommended therapies as well as annual health examinations, auditors said. The results of the audit were first reported in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post.

"This may not be life-or-death, but deprivations can have lifelong consequences," said Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth who reviewed the audit. "If we remove children for neglect, let's not neglect them."

Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe defended his agency yesterday, saying that reform, after years of neglect, won't come instantaneously. He pointed out that the Ehrlich administration had control of the department for only one year of the auditing period.

"We moved forward in some areas and backward in some others," he said. "This is not new information. I was aware of the environment of our foster child system when I came into office. It took us decades of relative neglect to get to this point. ... The changes that are necessary are larger than a quick fix - they are systemic."

In response to this week's audit, House Speaker Michael E. Busch reiterated the need for an investigation into allegations of negligence at the agency, as well as the hiring practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration. Busch suggested yesterday that problems with the foster care system could be tied to partisan hires.

"They aren't appropriately monitoring their programs, and this is a clarion call that there needs to be greater scrutiny," Busch said. "We are looking for ways we can improve personnel and oversight at the agency."

McCabe called Busch's accusations "unfounded."

Problems with the state's foster care system have extended to Republican and Democratic administrations.

However, reports of abuse and child deaths have troubled the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, an arm of state government, in recent years. Michelle Lane, a former member of Ehrlich's transition team, has accused the administration in e-mails and reports of gross negligence.

Advocates are lobbying for the passage of the reform bill, sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. They say the measure would require the department to develop a system of checks and balances to measure the effectiveness of foster care programs. The bill is based on recommendations presented by the Task Force on Child Welfare Accountability in 2003.

McCabe has said he would support the reform bill with amendments that he said would be less burdensome to his staff. He said they are busy putting together a plan to address compliance issues under a 1988 class action lawsuit and working on a new computer system that will help caseworkers track children.

"I don't know that we have the manpower to respond to everything in the bill," McCabe said. "And I don't think the legislature wants us to be overwhelmed."

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