Gov. Martin O'Malley and newly appointed state Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald Walker have inherited a child welfare system that has long needed fundamental change.
Given short shrift by previous administrations and deprived of professional leadership at the state level, many local departments of social services - which carry the front-line responsibility for child welfare - lack the basic elements to perform their legal and moral obligations to protect the most vulnerable children in our state: an adequate number of qualified casework staff, the resources to protect at-risk children from further harm, foster homes to place children who must be removed for their protection, and the rehabilitative and treatment services that parents need to resume their responsibilities.
Consider these examples that demonstrate the price children pay when we fail to appropriately invest in helping them:
A 16-year-old girl was removed from her mentally ill mother after a family crisis and was placed with an aunt. After several weeks, she revealed that her mother's boyfriend had raped her years ago. Her family was promised that counseling and mental health treatment would be provided, but she is still waiting.
A 9-year-old boy entered care because his mother is a drug addict who cannot provide the necessities. His 4-year-old twin brothers were placed with their grandmother, but she is not his grandmother. Because no foster home is available, he is in a group home. He is lonely and angry.
A 31-year-old woman has two daughters, ages 7 and 10. She was leaving them home alone overnight and selling her food stamps to buy drugs. When the children were placed three months ago, she requested substance abuse treatment but was put on a waiting list.
Take these stories, multiply them by several thousand, and you get a sense of the size of this crisis.
Since 2001, the number of family foster homes dropped from about 4,500 to 3,000, and family preservation services were cut roughly in half. These drastic losses were an inadvertent byproduct of deliberate downsizing through a hiring freeze that started in the last 15 months of the Glendening administration and continued through 18 months of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure. Struggling to meet statutory time frames for investigating 30,000 child abuse and neglect reports each year, departments of social services shifted remaining staff away from less volatile areas, such as in-home family services and foster home recruitment and support.
At the same time, critically needed services were put on hold. For example, the General Assembly had identified the need for substance abuse treatment for parents, particularly women. Without these services, children removed from the custody of substance-abusing parents remain in care for years.
As a result of the lack of foster homes, hundreds of children are placed in group homes at an additional cost that averages $4,300 per month. Child-welfare experts are nearly unanimous that family care better meets the needs of most children.
Foster care workers, who often have responsibility for 20 or more children at a time, cannot keep up with the needs for crisis intervention, mental health and other support services, leading to multiple disruptions of family placements and children entering congregate care facilities.
Here's what new leadership in Annapolis should do:
First and foremost, the Department of Human Resources must have a well-trained and sufficiently staffed child welfare work force. The Assembly has required that enough staff be hired to meet national caseload standards, and the governor must follow through with a 2008 supplemental budget request.
Money must be restored to prevention efforts and foster family care, and to support kinship caregivers. When expensive residential placement is necessary, it should not be because families haven't received the help they need to sustain the child in the home and community.
The agency infrastructure that supports the front-line workers' need for information, supervision, access to needed services and resource development must be updated with today's technology and strengthened to become an asset to accomplishing the agency's primary goal of protecting vulnerable families.
This three-point plan would allow the child welfare system to get off the revenue-expenditure roller coaster and put value for children ahead of cost containment.
Linda Heisner is deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. Her e-mail is email@example.com. Charlie Cooper is chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.