Fixing foster care in Maryland

November 29, 2007|By Douglas W. Nelson

Recent news reports about Baltimore's child welfare system have drawn attention to the crucial need to give the city's children in foster care a safe place to live and basic health care services. Those need to be top priorities.

But these children need much more - and Maryland's Department of Human Resources has a chance to deliver.

For more than 20 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has worked with jurisdictions across the country to do better by children in foster care. If there is one essential lesson we have learned, it is that in order to thrive and succeed in life, these children need not only protection but also strong, permanent families.

Merely taking them temporarily "out of harm's way" is not enough. In fact, all too often, well-intentioned efforts to protect vulnerable children do them a different kind of harm - by separating them not just from their parents but also from their brothers and sisters; by placing them far away from their homes, where they know no one and have to change to an unfamiliar school; by subjecting them to multiple placements; and, above all, by leaving them for too long in temporary foster care, where they do not know whether they will return to their birth families and their communities.

Recent actions in Maryland have given us, for the first time in years, cause for optimism about the prospects for our state's child welfare system. Maryland's Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald - a former Casey Foundation fellow who was among the candidates our foundation recommended to lead the department - moved quickly after her appointment, focusing first on meeting the health care needs of children in foster care. She convened state agencies, health care providers and the plaintiffs in ongoing litigation against the child welfare system. Out of this work, a consensus has developed around a model of delivering better health, mental health and dental services to children in foster care.

Now the Department of Human Resources and Secretary Donald have begun to take on a broader reform agenda. They are aggressively implementing previously dormant efforts at complying with the recommendations of the Child Welfare Accountability Task Force, and putting new energy into the development of a training academy for caseworkers and supervisors and a performance measurement system for county departments of social services.

With the Casey Foundation's assistance, the state has also launched an initiative, "Place Matters," that incorporates many of the most up-to-date concepts that have eluded Maryland's child welfare system for at least the past decade. It focuses on four essential elements of good child welfare systems:

Making better decisions about whether children can be kept safely at home, or if removal is necessary to protect the child from harm.

Providing community-based services to families that are willing and able to work on problems.

Building stronger local supports, so that if children have to be removed from their home, they can remain in their community and not lose contact with their extended families, friends and school.

Ensuring that every child removed from home finds a permanent "lifelong family" through reunification with the birth family or kin whenever possible, or through adoption or legal guardianship.

Over the past several months, the Department of Human Resources has begun working with many other partners, including Baltimore's Department of Social Services directors and their staff, foster parents, provider agencies and advocacy organizations, to take on other major challenges facing the state child welfare system.

Difficult as it has been for Maryland to attend to the immediate health and safety needs of foster children, resolving those long-standing problems in our child welfare system isn't enough. We will be able to claim success only when we meet every child's need for a strong, safe and lasting family.

Douglas W. Nelson is president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. His e-mail is dnelson@aecf.org.

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