Mind the children

April 13, 2005

ONE FACILITY has problems that "border on neglect." At another, a police officer reports a caretaker on top of a child, hitting him. A third didn't report that a child had run away; the child later died. As The Sun's four-day investigative series ending today makes clear, some of Maryland's group homes are troubled indeed.

We expect that group homes that mistreat children are a small minority, as advocates and agencies insist. But the lack of routine inspections and follow-up amounts to oversight so lax that the system can't ensure that children in group homes are safe. The state Department of Human Resources, which oversees 2,400 of the 2,700 kids in such homes, never even reviewed the reports required of group homes for two years running. And since DHR and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene apparently didn't sanction homes where they did find problems, why would conditions have improved?

Maryland has had to rely more and more on these small and midsize caretakers as its foster parent rolls decline grievously and the promised "continuum of care," including family counseling and emergency assistance, has failed to materialize.

DHR has new group-home regulations, but only eight monitors to check that the homes they license are living up to them. Without proper sanctions and rewards, regulations cannot protect a child from an inappropriate or abusive caretaker. And with an average payout of $60,000 per year per child -- and as much as $200,000 -- the temptation for providers to take on children they may not be able to care for is too great.

Beyond better placement options and training for monitors and group-home workers, agencies should immediately consider two other changes:

Require homes to be certified by a national accreditation group before licensing and as a condition of renewal. That would ensure a good start and let monitors concentrate on follow-up and enforcement.

Entice more people to re-up as foster families by boosting the paltry stipend of $665 a month and restoring services such as rides to doctor visits and assistance enrolling children in their new schools.

Assigning a social worker to closely assist only three to five foster -- or natal -- families would cost one-fourth what the state spends to house those children in group homes. And it would ensure that each child gets the care he or she is due.

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