Child-welfare advocates and state officials hope a package of bills passed this year in Annapolis will stem the proliferation of private group homes in Maryland and improve the care of thousands of youth living in the lightly regulated facilities.
Under the legislation, which Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign, new group homes could only be established at the direction of state agencies. Staff who treat children will be required to pass state certification exams and a resident "bill of rights" will have to be publicly posted at all programs.
"Standards are woefully inadequate even with this legislation," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bills. "A huge part of why our state has been in such disarray has been that the private sector and [its] profit motive have been deeply involved in the welfare of our kids."
Since the death of an East Baltimore teenager at a private Carroll County reformatory in 2007, O'Malley, a Democrat, has made juvenile reform a priority of his administration. The heads of the Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Human Resources - which both license residential child care programs - worked with Zirkin to craft the legislation.
"These changes all embrace a common goal that [Human Resources Secretary] Brenda Donald and I have, which is to reduce our out-of-home placement and rely more on evidence-based models," said Donald W. DeVore, secretary of juvenile services.
James McComb, director of an association representing about half of the state-licensed private residential child care and juvenile programs in Maryland, said the private sector has long pushed for better state oversight and welcomed the new laws.
"We're very proud that Maryland will be the first state in the nation to establish professional credentials for direct-care staff," McComb said. "It's landmark legislation."
By 2013, all child care workers at residential group homes will need state certification. They will be required to pass an exam and undergo a standardized testing program.
The issue of staff training caught lawmakers' attention after 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons died in January 2007 while being restrained at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School. Days after the incident, juvenile services officials acknowledged that Maryland exercised virtually no oversight over staff training at private group homes.
DeVore said that the new training requirements would bring private facilities in line with standards in place for child care staff at state-run programs.
More than 2,000 state children live in group homes. Most of the youth there are in the care of the state's Social Services Department, but several hundred are young offenders committed by judges to the Department of Juveniles Services.
Youth advocates say Maryland's juvenile and social services agencies place far too many children in so-called "nonfamily residential care" programs. In addition to being more expensive than foster care, group home residents are far more likely to become juvenile offenders, said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.
Under Zirkin's legislation, new group homes may only be established in response to a well-documented "statement of need" by government agencies.
"We will start finally having a system where group homes will only be put in places where we actually need them," Zirkin said, adding, "You would think that's a no-brainer, but it's a brand-new concept for Maryland."
Group homes have proliferated in Randallstown and Woodlawn and in parts of southwestern Baltimore County, Zirkin said.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "has been concerned about this issue for a number of years," said his spokesman, Donald I. Mohler. "Any measure that moves to tie group homes to need as opposed to simply location is very much appreciated."
The final piece of legislation requires group home operators to publicly post a resident's "bill of rights," listing children's rights to decent living conditions and educational services.
Zirkin withdrew a bill this year that would have established an annual "report card" of private group homes by grading them on safety, quality and effectiveness.
"It was a piece of junk," said McComb of the proposed law, which he described as a "gotcha" bill designed to make group home operators look bad. "The way the bill was written, you'd have people running around and generating huge amounts of paperwork to prove they've done something," McComb said.
Zirkin acknowledged that the bill "wasn't quite ready for prime time" but said it would be his "priority No. 1" next year.