A Breach Of Trust

Our View: The State's Decision To Pursue An End To Federal Oversight Of Foster Care Destroys A Fragile Alliance With Advocates For Baltimore's Most Vulnerable Children

August 06, 2009

Maybe it was too good to be true.

Two weeks ago, leaders of the state agency responsible for Maryland's foster care system came to The Sun's editorial board with the attorneys who have spent more than two decades in federal court trying to make sure that Baltimore's most threatened children receive appropriate care. In a stunning turnaround, they announced a consent agreement that resolved longstanding issues with the management of the Department of Human Resources and promised an end to federal oversight in as little as 18 months. State officials said what the advocates wanted was what the state should be doing anyway. The advocates said they believed the state would finally make good because they trusted the people now in charge. Had a guitar been in the room, Kumbaya would no doubt have broken out.

But now the agency's lawyers from the Attorney General's office are in court trying to get the federal oversight of the foster care system thrown out immediately. The state's lawyers believe that a recent Supreme Court decision eliminates the federal court's jurisdiction - even if state officials willingly consent to the oversight. U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz agreed Wednesday to hold a hearing on the matter.

DHR Secretary Brenda Donald says the legal maneuvering doesn't indicate any backsliding on the goals she agreed to with the advocates, but she and the AG's office say that the state is required to make the judge aware of any new legal developments they believe could apply to the case.

But that explanation implies that the agency is bringing the matter up against its will, which is not the case. Ms. Donald says she would like to end court oversight because that would eliminate some of the documentation, reporting and other requirements necessary under the consent decree that she says distract from helping Baltimore's most vulnerable kids.

"We don't need a federal judge holding a gavel over our heads ... telling us to do what we're commited to doing," she says.

Even if the Supreme Court ruling allows the state to get out of the federal supervision, that doesn't make it the right thing to pursue. After the agency's long and troubled history, it's hard to believe that oversight is no longer necessary.

Ms. Donald says she is still performing actions required under the consent decree and working on other areas - such as increasing adoptions and reducing group home stays - but her goodwill isn't enough. There's an election coming next year, and there's no guarantee she'll have a job after that, or that her successor won't change course.

Advocates were willing to accept on good faith that the state would make the necessary improvements and document them. But that good faith is now broken, and it's hard to know what it would take to get it back.

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