Tamara Lee spends her days trying to fix broken families. As a state foster-care caseworker in Baltimore, she spends hours talking with abused and neglected children and asking gentle but probing questions to gauge health, happiness and healing.
She is a human face in an enormous state agency tasked with caring for more than 10,000 children who have been removed from dysfunctional living conditions. In recent years, the Maryland Department of Human Resources has been criticized for mishandling implementation of a mammoth computer system, housing foster children in a downtown office building overnight and failing to provide proper medical and dental care.
And last week, lawyers who represent foster children in a long-standing consent decree charged the state with contempt of court in a huge filing in federal court. They say the state has persistently failed to meet the standards of care set in the agreement. State officials disagree and have promised to respond quickly to the charge.
For front-line workers like Lee, whom The Sun shadowed for several days in September and October, public opinion doesn't much matter.
Rather, it's the day-to-day business of caring for children that is paramount. Lee said she is hopeful that the department's new secretary - Brenda Donald, a former deputy mayor in Washington and Gov. Martin O'Malley's appointee - can bring about changes that will enrich the lives of vulnerable children.
Donald says she's dedicated to refocusing the agency. To that end, she has partnered with the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation to study successful foster care systems in other states and start similar programs in Maryland. She has made improving foster care in Baltimore a priority and has called for regular meetings with city social services officials to chart the progress.
"There are some things that we do reasonably well," said Donald in a recent interview with The Sun's editorial board. "And some that need to be totally overhauled."
Lee, 39, a Baltimorean, joined the Baltimore Department of Social Services, a division of the DHR, as a caseworker in 1991. Although her undergraduate degree from Morgan State University was in business administration, Lee said she was drawn to social work because it allows her to come to the aid of needy children.
"I do believe that the children I work with are better prepared for being a productive person," said Lee. "I see myself as someone who is helping."
Lee visits the 20 children in her care at least once a month. At a foster home in Randallstown recently, she sat on a plush couch with a knobby-kneed boy who told her about his math class, the thunder he heard the other night and how much he loves his foster parents.
As the 9-year-old boy rambled, Lee listened and smiled. She later told a reporter that the boy won't be able to stay with the foster family, but that she didn't want to give him the news just yet.
There's still so much about his young life that is unsettled, Lee said. It's unclear if his parents, or their landlord, will fix exposed electrical wiring and blocked doorways at their home to make it safe for his return. Even if they do, it's uncertain whether the court system will allow a reunion. If not, a relative might have to take him.
"I know what I have to do to make the best plan for the child," she said.
Lee's workday schedule can be hectic. Recently, she started her day at Baltimore DSS offices on Biddle Street in East Baltimore, drove to Randallstown to visit two children, and then headed to Anne Arundel County to visit a third.
A significant number of city children are placed in foster homes in surrounding counties and states because the number of foster families in Baltimore has dwindled, from nearly 2,300 in 2004 to about 1,400 today, said Norris West, a DHR spokesman.
State officials have held a series of meetings with existing foster families in an effort to enlist their aid in finding new families. And although the reimbursement rate for Maryland's foster families was raised recently, it still lags behind some other states and the District of Columbia. Day care also has been an issue: Some counties have used unencumbered funds to pay for child care, but not all families receive the aid.
State officials acknowledge that they need to do more and plan to bring back child-care subsidies in the new year.
Besides visiting foster children, Lee meets with foster parents, biological parents, teachers and therapists. She also goes to juvenile court - she is required to go there every six months to review cases where a child has been in foster care for six months or more. Often, those sessions are also attended by a Legal Aid Bureau attorney who represents the child, as well as one of the child's biological parents.