New tack for foster children

August 11, 2005

NEXT WEEK, most of the youngest children entering foster care in Baltimore will take part in a privately funded pilot program designed to offer their parents the help they need - with an eye to getting families back together as quickly as possible.

The well-designed program, based on one in San Diego that cut average foster care stays from more than three years to slightly more than one year, rewards parents who take advantage of guaranteed, intensive, immediate assistance by quickly returning their children to them. If parents do not take advantage of the drug treatment, counseling, housing and other assistance, month over month, a judge may more quickly release their child for adoption.

Foster care is meant to be temporary, but in Baltimore, a child under 5 years old who enters such care can expect to stay for nearly four years. The wait does no one good: Children often bounce from foster home to foster home, and they lose connection with their parents, their preschool and their sense of security. A judge who wishes to permanently place a child can be frustrated by social workers so busy that when they come to court they don't know if parents have attended the required drug treatment or anger counseling classes. Some well-meaning parents can't get into the programs they need because no slots are available; judges give them more time to keep trying. And their children wait.

Under the $2.6 million initial program, directed by the Family League of Baltimore, private counselors will meet with parents within a day of their first court appearances. The counselor and parent agree to a treatment plan, which for about 75 percent of these parents will include some form of drug treatment. The counselor keeps tabs on parents' progress and reports back to the court once or twice a month. That frees the Department of Social Services caseworker to help the parents with career, housing and other issues as well as to better ensure the children are secure in their foster home.

Detailed reports will help judges decide whether it's time to return a child home or direct the state to find another, permanent home for him. Close reporting on results and costs also will help the state decide whether to pick up the program and pay for it with state money in future years.

The idea of using private money until a prevention program proves it works, then public money to continue it, is being pushed as well by advocates who are building pilot programs targeting juvenile delinquents and adult convicts re-entering their communities.

The current system of piecing together short-term grants to pay for programs doesn't work because those grants expire. For example, youth drug court, which has shown good results, has not accepted new children since last year because of funding cuts for the necessary number of Juvenile Services Department caseworkers. It's bad timing: With the downsizing of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, one might expect even more children could take part in this community-based program.

For the city's newest foster children and the parents who want them back, success will be measured in time - the less, the better.

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