Improving foster care Despite great odds...

D. GRETHEN

April 16, 2005

D. GRETHEN

Improving foster care

Despite great odds and great scrutiny of the state's handling of our most vulnerable children, the Ehrlich administration has made significant progress toward improving the care of children in the last two years.

Our achievements include:

Opening the first 24/7 child protective services intake operation ever at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services to help victims of child abuse and neglect, regardless of the time of day.

Hiring enough child welfare caseworkers to substantially meet Child Welfare League of America staffing ratios. By January, we had more than 1,900 caseworkers on staff throughout the state.

Including in our budget $1.7 million for a Child Welfare Training Academy so that our new caseworkers and existing staff members have the professional development necessary to raise their skill levels.

Implementing MD Chessie, a statewide information system to give child welfare caseworkers a more powerful statewide tool to track the whereabouts and needs of children entrusted in our care.

Completing a federally approved child welfare improvement plan that will spur many more changes over the next two years.

My commitment, and that of the governor, to improve child welfare services is iron-clad.

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 eight years before we took office.

We have invested in staff and in providing them with resources they need to serve our children.

In 2004, our dedicated caseworkers initiated more than 30,000 child protective services investigations in the state - more than 6,000 of them in Baltimore.

The range of problems is complex. Like snowflakes, each case is different, posing unique challenges for our staff.

As we move to protect children, our mission is to keep families together when possible. When it is necessary to remove children from homes, we identify the most appropriate placements for them.

Group homes are part of the kaleidoscope of care because Maryland does not have enough good foster families - yet - to serve children who are abused and neglected. It is because of this shortage of foster families that group homes serve an important purpose.

The Sun's series on group homes raises questions about the state's oversight of congregate homes ("Maryland's Troubled Group Homes," April 10-April 13).

Children in these group settings deserve the same attention and support as children in classical foster homes.

And this administration is moving forward with improving group homes by enforcing new regulations that impose a mandatory 40 hours of annual training for direct-care staff, disqualify the licenses of applicants convicted of a felony within five years of the application, increase monitoring and sanctioning standards, require new safety standards and tighten rules for admitting new residents.

These are significant improvements that raise the bar for group home operators throughout the state.

Christopher J. McCabe

Baltimore

The writer is secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Thank you for the well-researched series on group homes and for the cogent editorial ("Mind the children," April 13). The Sun's suggestions about boosting foster parent reimbursement pay and greatly reducing caseloads for children in foster care are on target.

They are part of a broader perspective that perhaps was underemphasized in the series: Maryland's increasing reliance on group homes is not in children's best interests.

For two years, the Citizens' Review Board for Children has been telling anyone who will listen in the legislative and executive branches how we could simultaneously reduce reliance on high-cost placements and serve children better.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe have a $1 million initiative to improve recruitment and retention of foster parents. This is a step in the right direction, but it is insufficient in scale.

The state's recent increase in hiring social services caseworkers will also help.

But to begin to solve the group home problem, it is not enough to improve regulation, monitoring and staffing of group homes.

We need a resource development plan and a total overhaul of the child welfare system that would put more emphasis on helping children and their families long before group home placement becomes necessary.

Ted Kirk

Baltimore

The writer is state board chairman for the Citizens' Review Board for Children.

I would like to thank The Sun for its series exposing the problems of group homes and in the care of the medically fragile children in foster care.

The problems The Sun cites are critical and are being addressed in a variety of ways - administratively, judicially and legislatively.

The fragmented bureaucracy, lack of extended criminal background checks and lack of enforcement of school attendance are, in my opinion, the largest impediments to reform. The latest audit of the Department of Human Resources by Maryland's Department of Legislative Services bears this out.

I encourage all citizens to study The Sun's articles and let their legislators know their reaction.

This is critical to the well-being of families dealing with the care of medically fragile children.

Patricia Ranney

Millersville

The writer is a member of Anne Arundel County's Citizens' Review Board for Children.

Compensation, not compassion, is the engine that drives the operation of group homes for children.

Our elected officials and so-called representatives need to stop bickering over slot machines and start concentrating on what's really important - such as the care of our vulnerable citizens, regardless of age and circumstances.

McNair Taylor

Baltimore

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