House of Delegates approves bill on monitoring of foster children

Measure targets state agency, would toughen requirements

April 09, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Pointing to a blistering audit of the department responsible for the state's foster care system, the House of Delegates pushed through a bill yesterday that intends to rein in an agency that critics say fails the state's most vulnerable children.

The bill would require the Department of Human Resources to better track and monitor foster children, measure the effectiveness of its foster care program, create a training academy for social workers and reduce the child-to-caseworker ratio to meet national standards, among other provisions.

Sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, the legislation is based on recommendations from a task force report issued in December. It must move through the Senate in the next few days to land on the governor's desk.

Although the bill was passed on a 109-24 vote, several Republicans attacked it as political move designed to strip authority from the executive branch. It calls for an advisory council that would make sure the department is following the recommendations.

"It's not about the children, it's about the blurring of the separation of powers," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip, who said the department's problems precede the current administration. "There is a political agenda being set here."

But supporters backed their arguments with details from the report released Monday by the Office of Legislative Audits that found large deficiencies in the system charged with caring for children living in the state's foster homes and group facilities.

The audit said that 35 percent of foster care children did not attend school during the period from March 2001 to May 2004, among other claims.

Department of Human Resources officials dispute some of the findings and issued a news release yesterday saying that their records show that 98 percent of foster care children were in school in 2004.

In making a case in support of the bill, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh referred to the case of Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old girl found dead in her East Baltimore home in 2002, weighing just 73 pounds, her emaciated body covered with hundreds of wounds.

"This is our child, and this is what this bill is about," said the Baltimore Democrat. "It's not about computers. It's about our children."

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, argued that the state is failing its neediest children.

"They are ours. And we have to stand up, and we have to be held accountable," said Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, "I would hope everyone understands that we're not doing the job we should be doing."

Norris West, a Department of Human Resources spokesman, said that while the department supports the concept of the bill, officials believe it is not realistic in practice.

"We think the legislation is misguided because it's unrealistic," said West. "We think that it's going to be a very difficult and strenuous process to try to implement all of the recommendations that they want."

West said the department has been addressing some task force recommendations. "We are moving in the right direction at the right pace," he said.

But advocates called the bill crucial to turning around a department they say is dysfunctional and needs to be held accountable.

"The Department of Human Resources has hidden behind a veil of confidentiality for a long time," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We have almost no way of knowing whether the 90,000 children and families are safer or better off because of state intervention."

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