Foster care emergency

November 07, 2007

Baltimore and the state of Maryland are not living up to their promises to improve the lives of foster children in the city, according to a court filing this week. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the long-standing class action lawsuit that resulted in a 20-year-old consent decree are asking a federal judge to cite the state and the city's child welfare agency for contempt and to appoint an independent monitor to ensure accountability and push reforms more aggressively.

Brenda Donald, who heads the state Department of Human Resources and who has taken responsibility for turning things around, insists that changes are already under way. But the city's Department of Social Services has lost ground in recent years, and despite some welcome new initiatives by the state and the city, their efforts to make things better for vulnerable children might benefit from more outside help.

The contempt petition offers a litany of shortcomings in the city's child welfare system. Among the most important: A 55 percent drop in the number of foster homes since 2001 - from more than 3,000 to fewer than 1,330 - has pushed more children into group homes, up from about 830 in 2001 to more than 1,700 in 2006.

That's the opposite of accepted models of good practice, where group home placements are used as a last resort or for children with specific therapeutic needs. Many foster parents have abandoned the system because of bureaucratic hassles and delays or because child care subsidies that make it easier for them to work have been reduced.

The petition also claims that, on occasion, city children are still being kept illegally in a state office building on Gay Street overnight. In addition, child welfare workers are accused of failing to ensure that foster children receive required health assessments and follow-up medical and dental care.

Ms. Donald has promised to recruit more foster families, restore child care subsidies and work with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide more health care. She also is dispatching a team of managers to help the city's child welfare administrators move faster on reforms.

She may be on the right track, but the petition makes it clear that she needs to move faster. The city's foster children have waited far too long for change.

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