City's foster care is faulted

Monitors' lawsuit contends Md., Baltimore not carrying out reforms ordered in 1988

November 06, 2007|By LYNN ANDERSON

Baltimore foster children are still being sheltered at a state office building and still missing medical and dental appointments, according to lawyers charged with monitoring a long-standing court decree on care for these children.

In a more than 400-page document filed yesterday in federal court, the lawyers say the state Department of Human Resources and Baltimore's Department of Social Services have persistently failed to comply with a 1988 agreement that called for swift reform in the care of foster children.

Attorneys say that as recently as Oct. 27, a 14-year-old boy in foster care stayed overnight in a state office building on Gay Street in Baltimore and that caseworkers are still too slow to enroll children in school. They say some caseworkers fail to make regular visits to children to ensure that they are well.

"A generation of children, literally tens of thousands of abused and neglected children, has lived in the foster care system since [the consent decree] without receiving the court- ordered services and protections that [the state] agreed to provide," lawyers Mitchell Y. Mirviss and Rhonda Lipkin contend in the document charging the state with contempt of court. "Baltimore's abused and neglected children are entitled to better treatment than this."

State officials must respond to the contempt filing, and a federal judge is expected to consider the allegations. Mirviss and Lipkin hope the judge will appoint a full-time monitor who will follow up on the state's efforts to improve foster child welfare in Baltimore. Such a system has worked well in other states, including Alabama and Utah, they said.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, who has been in the post for less than a year, said she knew the court action was coming - she had been warned in writing by Mirviss and Lipkin as required by law several months ago. Still, she said she was disappointed that they couldn't wait a bit longer to see whether her initial reform efforts could produce improvements.

Donald's agency recently joined with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to study successful foster care programs in other states and try to replicate them in Maryland. And for the first time yesterday, Donald met with leaders at Baltimore's social services headquarters, including director Samuel Chambers Jr., as part of a new effort called Baltimore ReBuild that she hopes will speed reforms. Chambers also has tried to enact changes during his nearly three years in the position, including creating community centers in several city neighborhoods to reach families in need of counseling and other services.

"This is a 19-year-old lawsuit, and I have only been here nine months," said Donald, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley this year. She oversees the Baltimore social services office because it is part of the state's human resources network. "We've been making such great strides, and I think there is clear evidence that the central [DHR] office is taking Baltimore very seriously," she said. "We are bringing a large number of resources to the city."

Donald said children are staying at the state office building on Gay Street for a few hours at a time, not days on end as in the spring of 2005 when The Sun first reported that children were sleeping on floors and chairs. She said there are regular reports on the children who stay at the office - which is staffed 24 hours a day - and that those reports are shared with child advocates. In October, 45 children stayed at the office for an average of 1.9 hours, Donald said.

"I believe that the Gay Street situation has been resolved," Donald said. "Certainly, it is an overnight placement office and sometimes children come in in the middle of the night, but they are not staying there for long periods of time."

Mirviss and Lipkin acknowledge that Donald - a former deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders in Washington - has brought new energy to the agency. However, they said they had heard too many unfulfilled promises since the lawsuit was first filed to wait any longer for evidence of improvements.

"We're at a crisis point," said Lipkin, whose position with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore is funded by legal fees paid by the state out of the consent decree. "What's unfortunate is that we've been at a crisis point for quite a while."

Lawyers used the Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees public access to certain documents, to force the state to let them examine files of numerous foster children in the city. A review enabled attorneys to document a history of unsuitable foster home placements - including an over-reliance on expensive, group home facilities - as well as failure by the state to ensure basic medical and dental care to some children.

In one case documented by the lawyers, city social services case workers allowed a 13-year-old girl to live with a family friend who "drank [alcohol] and physically abused her."

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