Capital Notebook

Capital Notebook

February 07, 2006

Governor unveils new initiatives on foster care

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced a series of foster care initiatives yesterday, including a new public service announcement featuring his wife, Kendel Ehrlich.

"Find out how you can be a foster parent and make a positive difference in the life of a child," the state's first lady says during the 30-second ad, which is running free of charge on stations across the Baltimore and Washington areas. " ... Make a difference for a lifetime of rewards."

The governor and his wife have starred in several public service announcements, the most high-profile of which were the state tourism ads featuring Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and the governor as they packed an unsuspecting family into their minivan for a beach weekend.

The latest ad with Kendel Ehrlich airs during an election year, however, and the Department of Human Resources paid $23,000 to produce the spot, according to Arlene F. Lee, director of the Governor's Office for Children.

Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary, said the first lady has appeared in public service announcements for the Hurricane Katrina telethon and the Junior League of Annapolis and to promote the use of car seats for children and an energy-saving light bulb, among other causes.

He said he couldn't confirm the production cost of the new foster care spot. He said the air time for such spots is provided by the stations running them.

"Every station has to run a certain number of them to gain their license," Massoni said of public service announcements.

In addition to the ad, the governor announced yesterday that the state is hiring 130 child welfare caseworkers.

In a scathing report about problems in Maryland's child welfare system, General Assembly auditors recently said that the state needed to hire another 130 caseworkers to meet industry standards.

Ehrlich also announced the state would increase the monthly stipend for foster parents by $25 per child, raising the monthly payment to $585 for each child in care.

The governor also renewed the state's commitment to a Foster Parent Association, placing $500,000 in the budget for the group's training and recruitment efforts, Lee said.

Lee said that Ehrlich's budget includes an additional $2 million to expand programs for children in crisis.

Jennifer Skalka

Prison officers rally for reforms after killing of colleague

With the shooting death of a fellow corrections officer fresh in their minds, about 50 officers and other union members went to Annapolis last night to call on the governor to institute reforms to keep prison guards safe.

"This is a state of emergency," said Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92. "Governor Ehrlich needs to stand up and protect the people who protect the state of Maryland."

Galvanized by the death of Jeffery Alan Wroten, 44, who was killed two weeks ago while guarding an inmate at a Western Maryland hospital, union officials have stepped up their lobbying efforts. Wroten, a father of five, was shot in the head, allegedly by an inmate who had been hospitalized for treatment of a self-inflicted injury.

Bailey called for an increased staff-to-prisoner ratio, updated equipment and the establishment of a task force of union representatives and administrative personnel to review safety procedures.

Sheila Hill, a corrections officer for 17 years, said the officers need bulletproof vests to replace stab-proof gear, which officers often must share because there isn't enough to go around.

Many radios are so outdated that officers cannot communicate with one another, and in some of the older facilities there are as many as 75 inmates to every officer, she said.

"That's not acceptable," said Hill, who works at Patuxent Institution in Jessup. "We have low staffing levels and we're concerned about burnout. ... The officers are drafted to work sometimes eight days in a row, or to do double shifts."

Bailey said Ehrlich has ignored requests for a meeting with union representatives.

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of public safety and correctional services, said in a statement that the department is devoted to protecting its employees as evidenced by the governor's budget proposal that earmarks $47 million for salaries and other benefits.

"It is irresponsible of AFSCME, or any other organization, to criticize and dismiss well-known security procedures that have been in place for decades," she said.

Hill said that although she didn't know Wroten, she was brought to tears by his death.

"When I first heard about it, I felt sick because that could have been me," she said.

Kelly Brewington

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