Lawmakers assailed the state's oversight of privately run group homes for troubled youths yesterday as a "disaster" and called on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to work with them to improve monitoring of care, spending and staffing at the facilities.
Senators expressed alarm at a regulatory system that lacks a central database with basic information about each home, spends $167 million a year without checking quality of care and sometimes re-licenses homes without evidence that staffers were checked for history of child abuse, neglect or serious crime.
Careful to avoid excessive criticism of the administration they hope to work with to improve the system, the lawmakers said flaws date back years.
"This has been a disaster for a decade," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat. "This has been a disaster for at least a decade under the Ehrlich administration, under the Glendening administration, probably back to [former Gov. William Donald] Schaefer."
3 1/2 -hour hearing
The criticism came during a 3 1/2 -hour hearing in Annapolis, the first of three scheduled by the Budget and Taxation Committee in response to an investigation by The Sun documenting inadequate oversight of the state-funded homes for 2,700 abandoned, abused, delinquent, medically fragile and neglected youths.
Children were being mistreated or neglected at some homes without consequences, the newspaper reported. Many homes employed unqualified or poorly trained staff, including some with criminal records. Several operators enriched themselves, family and friends.
"What we have here is a system that has been lax in its oversight probably to the point of negligence," said Linda Heisner, a former official with the Department of Human Resources now with Advocates for Children and Youth.
During questioning, lawmakers interrupted state officials to ask questions and marveled at examples of lax oversight.
The senators complained that the inspections varied among the three state agencies that place children and monitor the homes. They expressed surprise at the lack of communication among the agencies in cases when the care is bad enough to warrant removing youths.
They pointed out that some homes failing to meet state regulations still were housing children and receiving funding. Some called on Human Resources to stop notifying homes before inspections and blamed infrequency of inspections on a shortage of inspectors.
"Some providers do a good job but that is just happenstance because we don't keep track," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. She said she was on a task force in 2001 that made several recommendations the state has ignored, even when laws were enacted requiring the changes.
State officials with the departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Human Resources, and Juvenile Services - the agencies that license and monitor group homes - defended their oversight but acknowledged problems.
"Each department has taken steps to improve its group home licensing and monitoring, all of which have made a difference," said Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. He and Health Secretary S. Anthony McCann said The Sun's examples of lax oversight centered on Human Resources.
Review of standards
Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said his agency has begun to review its group-home standards with the Department of Budget and Management, hired more inspectors and improved recordkeeping.
The secretary also said the agency is implementing new regulations, checking the backgrounds of employees and trying to recruit more foster families to take care of children to decrease reliance on group homes.
Still McCabe cautioned that regulatory problems were a long time in the making and couldn't be resolved overnight.
Yesterday's hearing produced larger figures on the state funding and number of licensed group homes than agencies had previously reported. General Assembly analysts said the state spends $167 million a year on about 500 homes.
Human Resources licenses and monitors the most homes - 305 operated by 170 companies - with eight inspectors, the analysts said.