City funding for DSS weighed

Contributions to agency discussed at hearing on care of foster children


Baltimore's relatively meager contribution to the state agency that cares for its poor and disadvantaged emerged as an issue yesterday during a City Council hearing on the plight of children who have been removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

The hearing was called after news reports that foster children were being temporarily housed in a city Department of Social Services office downtown. The office served as an impromptu shelter after the department had trouble placing the children.

Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the city DSS office, said the city contributes $238,000 to the department and none of it goes to frontline services for foster children. Some of the money goes to house homeless families, some supplements his salary and the rest is used at the discretion of a volunteer committee that oversees DSS.

The city's contribution looks especially small compared with the amount Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties gave to the state-run social services offices in those jurisdictions.

Baltimore County earmarked roughly $4 million this year for county social services programs for the poor and disadvantaged, according to a DSS spokesman. There are 773 children in state care in Baltimore County - compared with 7,000 in the city.

And in Anne Arundel County, which has 272 children in state care, officials allocated about $3 million, although not all of the money was spent directly on children, according to county DSS Director Marcia Kennai.

City Council President Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Helen L. Holton were the only council members who attended the hearing. They said they would push for greater funding of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, which is a division of the state Department of Human Resources. City children make up roughly 70 percent of the state's foster care roster, according to DHR officials.

"I'm very disturbed that only $238,000 has come from the city," said Holton.

Holton said she would push to use some of a projected $60.6 million budget surplus this year to improve the city's contribution.

"We should find some millions of dollars for this office," Holton said, referring to Baltimore DSS. "I will assure you that this will be a priority of mine."

A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley said that the city had never been asked to contribute money to the DSS budget beyond what it currently allocates. She said that the mayor would consider a request from Chambers or his office to increase the amount.

"There have been no requests for money, but if there was a request we would consider it," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

A spokesman for the Department of Human Resources said that state officials have been reluctant to go to the city for funds because officials had their hands full with other problems, including struggling schools and a high crime rate. But he said the state could always use additional help.

"I think we have been saying for a long time that child welfare is everyone's responsibility and that we need people to step up," said Norris P. West, a spokesman for the DHR.

Dixon said that she would like to use some of the city's surplus to pay for a caseworker who would be stationed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which treats a large number of children who have been victims of abuse or neglect.

Chambers said he wanted to assign a caseworker to the hospital but has not had the resources to do so. Advocates have also lobbied for the position.

The City Council hearing also provided an opportunity for advocates to share their concerns with elected leaders.

Attorney Rhonda Lipkin, who works as a full-time monitor to make sure city social services officials abide by a long-standing consent decree, told council members that the agency is still using an office building on Gay Street to illegally house foster children. She said that a child stayed there overnight as recently as last month.

DSS officials have said that they are doing nothing wrong because children don't stay at the office, a 24-hour emergency call center, for long. But Lipkin and other attorneys have documented multiple-night stays at the office, including one child who was housed there for 21 days.

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