Critics aim to reduce secrecy in foster care

Children: Advocates strengthen call for public review of records as group home problems come to light.

April 17, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Getting detailed information about foster children is difficult. So is finding detailed information about the group homes where they live.

All of that makes it very challenging to hold accountable the companies that are entrusted and paid to take care of the children - and the state regulators who are supposed to monitor that care.

"Everything right now is done with this shroud of secrecy, and there's no way to oversee the overseers," said Kathleen Hughes, a managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center, a private watchdog group that the state has designated to look after the interests of the disabled.

In a series of articles last week, The Sun described the state's failure to adequately safeguard the 2,700 foster children living in 330 privately run group homes. Regulators, the newspaper found, weren't properly overseeing care, spending and staffing at the homes.

Youths placed by state agencies in the homes are among Maryland's most vulnerable. They are victims of abuse and neglect, or they had been in trouble with the law. Some have complex medical needs and require round-the-clock nursing.

State law, however, largely blocks public review of the handling of their cases, even after they have died.

Advocates, who suspect this is a problem nationally, say they've long promoted improving public access to foster childcare records without violating any privacy rights of the children or their families.

They've talked with lawmakers about a number of ideas. They suggest the situation could be improved by giving lawyers representing the interests of foster children the authority to decide what information can be released, by establishing a watchdog agency that could review the records at the department of human resources or by giving county "child fatality review teams" that examine deaths of foster children the responsibility to share more information with the public after their investigations.

In Maryland law, Article 88A only allows disclosure when prosecutors have filed child abuse or neglect charges - a rarity, advocates say.

In such narrow circumstances, the state may give a limited amount of information, including the name of the child and the date and circumstances of the alleged abuse or neglect, along with the findings of an investigation into the allegations.

Advocates complain that the information disclosed is too limited. They say the public can't review the actions of the social services workers assigned to the children.

Camille B. Wheeler, a former director of Baltimore County Department of Social Services, said confidentiality shouldn't apply after a child has died, and she said it is in the child welfare system's interest to discuss a death.

"The public gets a worse impression not knowing what went on or what happened," she said. "It's like saying no comment - it's an admission of guilt."

Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, whose agency oversees more than half of the children's group homes in Maryland, acknowledged the importance of openness while testifying in Washington last year about flaws a federal review was finding with the state's foster care system.

"All states show the need for improvement, and I believe that the foundation for change begins with transparency, owning up to our weaknesses, while recognizing the inherent challenges in human service work as we seek to serve those most in need," McCabe testified before a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

State health officials give three responses to complaints about the withholding of records.

First, they say more than the child's privacy is at stake - there's the protection of the child's family and the reporter of any possible mistreatment.

"Even alleged abusers may have a degree of legitimate privacy interest unless and until their guilt is established by law," said Michael Walsh, a spokesman for the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, which recently led efforts rewriting state regulations on group homes.

Second, the officials say that the restrictions don't mean child neglect, mistreatment and death go without scrutiny, citing as many as a half-dozen different investigations that may result.

But The Sun investigation found that at least three children's deaths lacked thorough government reviews, and regulators didn't investigate two of them at all.

Lastly, the officials say that the limited access to Maryland records stems from federal law, which threatens states with the loss of millions of dollars in child welfare funding if they release confidential information.

Yet Walsh, of the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, concedes that federal regulations "provide somewhat more flexibility" in releasing information than Maryland law allows.

State law, Walsh said, "has never been amended to the maximum limits allowed by federal law." Child advocates say the stringency with which regulators have interpreted federal law doesn't help youths receive good care at group homes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.