Illegal shelter still operating

Foster children, including toddler with feeding tube, kept overnight at office after vows to stop months earlier


A 2-year-old girl on a feeding tube and other foster children were temporarily housed in a Baltimore office, months after state officials promised to stop using the impromptu shelter because it lacked proper bedding, toiletries and medical supplies.

The shelter operates illegally because it does not have a license. State officials promised to close it in June. Yesterday, Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit organization, reported that the shelter was still open.

In September, a 2-year-old girl on a feeding tube spent at least one night at the Gay Street office even though her caretaker had given city social service officials three weeks' notice that she could not continue to care for the girl, said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney who reviewed state records and discovered that the shelter was still in use.

More recently, on Dec. 2, six siblings, ages 3 to 13 years, also stayed at the facility, a 24-hour intake center that was never designed to house children for long periods.

"I can't think of a more deplorable situation than to have a child [on a feeding tube] in an illegal shelter," said Mirviss, who represents the city's 7,000 foster children in a long-standing consent decree that directs the state to provide better foster care. "The system is falling to pieces," he added.

Advocates said they are asking Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to set aside an additional $50 million to help improve foster care in the state. They said the money could come out of an anticipated $600 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that ends in June.

"Our concerns have been validated time and time again," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. She said that of the 28 children who have died because of neglect or abuse in Maryland this year, 11 were known by state social services agencies to be in danger.

"What could the department have done to prevent these needless deaths," Jackson asked, quickly adding: "The state is unable to meet even the basic needs of children in foster care."

Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the city Department of Social Services, countered that while some children are still staying at the Gay Street office, the number of children and frequency of overnight stays have decreased since summer. He said most of the children who have stayed overnight recently are difficult to place because of behavioral or medical problems, or because they are part of a large sibling group.

"Our goal is not to have any kids at the Gay Street facility," Chambers said. "But the reality is that we are unable to put our hands on resources for placements, and until we do, this is going to be a slow go."

Chambers said that he has asked for local facilities that work with foster children to come to him with proposals for new or expanded shelters, but that so far, not one has stepped forward. He said that an out-of-state group home provider has made contact with DSS recently, but that talks are very preliminary.

State officials have also met with the staff of Covenant House, a national organization that provides shelter for teenagers and young adults, Chambers said, but the group is only able to provide consulting services at this point. In the summer, there had been some talk that Covenant House might be able to open a shelter in Baltimore. The group runs a shelter in Washington.

"I am working as fast as I can," Chambers said.

The use of the impromptu shelter could be tied to the city's, and state's, rapidly draining pool of foster families, advocates said. In the past four years, the city's roster of foster families has decreased by about 46 percent. And while state officials recently announced a $25-a-month increase in the amount of money foster families receive as reimbursement for caring for a child, the sum is not enough to cover the real-life costs associated with raising a child, they said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it costs $790 a month to feed and care for a child between ages 3 and 5, even more for teenagers, but the state offers most foster parents less than that. Even after the $25-per-month increase kicks in Jan. 1, most foster families will receive $560 per month.

"It's a shame," said Mirviss.

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