Social services on the cheap

December 26, 2005

Last year, the state's Department of Human Resources continued to suffer from a skeletal budget and burgeoning need. "Year of the Child" it wasn't.

While the freeze on hiring caseworkers was lifted, a moratorium on staff to support and manage them was retained. The Ehrlich administration, which has cut funding for health care, child care, drug treatment and other services for families in 2005, was proud to announce that next year, foster families will get $25 per month more. That means they soon will be receiving about $200 less than that required by a Baltimore court order and at least $220 less than the cash-poor District of Columbia pays its foster families.

Funding for intensive services that have shown success at giving families the skills they need to keep and care for their children is half the level it was in 2000, while spending on the more expensive options, removing children into state care, has increased. The number of children in the most expensive and least desired options, group home and institutional care, has steadily increased as the state continues to lose foster families. In Baltimore, children slept in an office building on Gay Street because emergency sheltering and foster care were not available. The extra $25 and a planned marketing campaign seem unlikely to entice the 1,400 new foster families the city needs to restore its rolls to the 3,000 it had in 2001.

Meanwhile, the city still is not meeting the service requirements of a 17-year-old consent decree. It has made some progress, though; training has been increased and a solid master plan has been drawn up. The city is also more forthcoming now about where exactly it isn't measuring up. That could bode well for the future, assuming the money is there to improve services as basic as dental care, getting children quickly enrolled in new schools and performing background checks on all foster families.

In Maryland, at least 500 children who have been fostered for more than two years and will not be going back to their families still have no fixed adoption plan, according to the Maryland Coalition for Adoption. In Baltimore, children wait an average of 5.5 years in foster care before they are adopted; in 1998, they waited 4.5 years. The national average wait is 2.75 years. In fiscal year 2002, 937 children statewide were adopted; in fiscal 2005, only 624 were adopted. Nationally, the number of adoptions is increasing, not decreasing.

Maryland's neediest families need more than lip service and small stipends. This year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must follow through on his declaration that the state's children are its best resource and fund first an adequate then a superior support system for them. Maryland, a plenty-rich state, is looking forward to even more revenue in the next fiscal year - a perfect time to restore and reaffirm the importance of social services.

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