More than three years ago, Maryland was handed a blueprint to improve the care of nearly 3,000 children in privately run group homes.
The plan recommended new performance standards, tougher sanctions for violators and a public Web site that everyone could use to gauge the quality of homes. Most important, the much-criticized licensing and monitoring systems run by various state departments were to be consolidated and strengthened.
But the major provisions of the 170-page plan, devised by a task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, were not carried out. Some have blamed the price tag, others bureaucratic turf battles or the momentum lost as gubernatorial administrations changed.
The need for reform is as urgent now as when Glendening formed the panel in response to concerns raised by community leaders, legislators, state agency officials and others.
Children are at risk. Regulations lack teeth and often go unenforced, an investigation by The Sun found. Incidents of abuse and neglect - even death - occur without adequate investigation or consequences for the homes. With no one telling them not to, some operators give themselves big salaries and generous perks at state expense.
Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, said yesterday that regulatory flaws have been a problem for years and accused the Glendening administration of neglecting the child welfare system. He asserted that the Ehrlich administration has "made significant progress." Among other things, he said, the state is developing computer databases to track children, instituting stricter rules for group homes and strengthening enforcement.
"We are serious in our mission to repair a damaged child welfare system, which suffered from years of relative indifference bordering on neglect, particularly during the prior eight years," McCabe said in a letter to The Sun.
But experts say much more needs to be done to protect the 2,700 children in 330 group homes in Maryland. Child advocates say the state should:
Hire more inspectors and investigators to license and monitor group homes and put them under the control of a single state authority. The leading regulatory agency, the Department of Human Resources, has just eight inspectors who oversee 198 group homes, as well as more than 100 other programs.
"The problem is, you don't have anybody to monitor these homes," said Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown activist and member of the task force that wrote the recommendations in 2001. With group home operators on the honor system, she said, "anything goes."
Conduct faster, tougher investigations when mistreatment is alleged and end the practice of giving some homes advance notice of inspections.
"Providers have to know the state is out there and they are subject to review, and that will move them to do a better job," said Kathleen Hughes, a managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center, a state-designated watchdog for the developmentally disabled that has complained about lax investigations.
Establish performance standards and make homes comply in order to receive full funding. State officials say they don't look at inspection reports when determining rates for child care. And the Department of Human Resources has not been examining the financial reports the homes submit each year to account for their spending, according to a report last month by the Office of Legislative Audits, an arm of the General Assembly.
"We pay a lot of tax money to place these kids in these facilities, and we ought to know what happens as a consequence, and we really don't know," said James Filipczak, who was a task force member. He retired in 2002 as executive director of Edgemeade, a Prince George's County nonprofit that operates a group home, a residential treatment center and offers other services. "Would you like to run an automotive manufacturing plant and not know the quality of your engines?"
Limit spending that does not serve children. Some operators pay themselves six-figure incomes, hire relatives and find creative ways to reap more money, such as expensing trips, meals and credit card bills, and renting properties they own to the group home company.
"People who work for nonprofits shouldn't be driving BMWs, or shouldn't be provided BMWs to drive," said Susan Daddio, a former group home director who now leads Court Appointed Special Advocates of Baltimore County, a group of volunteers who monitor the cases of abused and neglected children.
A range of services
Child welfare experts said the state must also look beyond group homes to develop broader services for kids. Maryland needs more mental health facilities, for example, for its most emotionally disturbed children.
Meanwhile, social services workers, who place children, say they don't have enough good choices among group homes.
Change won't come, warns Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, who served on the task force, unless the governor gets behind it.