Measure targets group homes

Ehrlich expected to sign bill to strengthen oversight, redistribute sites

General Assembly

April 11, 2006|By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to sign into law a measure that would strengthen oversight of some 500 group homes caring for 2,700 troubled foster children across Maryland and reduce the heavy concentration of the privately run facilities in northwestern Baltimore County, state officials said yesterday.

Arlene F. Lee, executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, said Ehrlich would sign the bill "with great enthusiasm." The measure, which the General Assembly passed last week, "does a number of things that are very important in terms of distribution of resources around the state and the quality of resources around the state," Lee said.

Last April, a series of articles in The Sun reported that state regulators failed to properly monitor the homes, allowing for mistreatment or neglect of children without consequences. Many group homes employed unqualified or poorly trained workers, including some with criminal records, the articles reported. The series also documented instances of financial self-dealing by home operators.

The legislation would give the state departments of Human Resources and Juvenile Services more power to terminate any of their $166 million in yearly home licensing contracts. Group home companies could lose contracts if they do not show how their spending compares with budgets submitted to receive funding, fail to report resolution of problems with neighbors within 10 days, or do not identify employees that have stakes in firms doing business with the homes.

The measure does not affect the dozen homes licensed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene at a cost of $1 million a year. Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who led the effort to revamp the contracting rules, said those homes were exempted because they face stringent agency rules for handling children with disabilities.

Although the state has had the regulatory power to cancel licenses of poorly performing group homes, it has infrequently used it. The three departments that monitor facilities revoked licenses 11 times from 2000 to 2005.

"People pay much more attention to a contract by which they get paid than they do to regulations buried in some law book," said Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat.

DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said the agency is already putting the new language into all of its contracts with group homes, and expects the contracts to be revised effective July 1. The law, he said, "really helps our cause to ensure we get the best possible services for our dollar."

To reduce the heavy concentration of group homes in certain communities, the bill also directs the state to offer financial incentives to facilities that locate in areas with a substantial need and furnish services in demand. Ehrlich has budgeted $1 million for incentives, Lee said, and the administration will begin identifying those areas and services within a few weeks.

McCabe said his agency has already identified the Eastern Shore as an area needing more homes, so that youths there aren't sent to facilities in distant Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said the bonuses would prompt group homes to leave the county, where about two-thirds of the facilities are located. Most are in Randallstown, Woodlawn and elsewhere in the northwestern part of the county.

Neighbors who have complained about noise, loitering and crime around the homes might not see changes for another year to 18 months, Smith said.

"But in the long run, it will be a significant improvement in the services to children in residential care as well as the communities in which they are located," he said. "Nothing cures all the problems, but it is a significant improvement for the community."

Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist, predicted the legislation would stop the proliferation of group homes in her neighborhood and others nearby. She said that would help the overtaxed teachers who are forced to deal with the children in classrooms, as well as the police officers and rescue workers who are frequently called to group homes. "It's long overdue," she said.

Camille B. Wheeler, who led Baltimore County's child welfare agency from 1979 to 1998, said the legislation would lead to better care of group home residents if state agencies used their new powers to hold the homes to high standards.

But Wheeler said the pot of incentive money was insufficient to ensure that all group homes provide services that youths need in neighborhoods close to their families. "A million dollars is not a lot of money for this kind of stuff - in fact, it's not much at all."

Prince George's County also has a large number of group homes. State officials might target Baltimore City, which sends many youths to facilities across Maryland, for more homes.

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