The Baltimore Sun's August 5 editorial "A Breach of Trust" reflected several inaccurate conclusions about the state's continued commitment to reforming the foster care system in Baltimore City; the legal duties of attorneys; and the level of public accountability for the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR).
Shortly after Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed me Secretary of DHR in February of 2007, I began implementing a comprehensive child welfare reform agenda called Place Matters. Place Matters seeks to keep children with their families as often as possible and to minimize their length of stay when they must come into foster care. Put simply, we believe that nothing matters more to a child than a place to call home.
For the past eight months, the state negotiated in good faith with two attorneys representing plaintiffs in a 25-year-old lawsuit (L.J. v. Massinga) that alleged that the Baltimore City Department of Social Services was not providing adequate care to foster children. In an effort to put an end to the expensive lawsuit - but more importantly to improve outcomes for foster children - we negotiated in good faith and agreed to dozens of needed reforms for Baltimore City's foster care system. These reforms were consistent with DHR's Place Matters reform agenda. Both sides were preparing to ask a federal court judge to modify an old consent decree stemming from the lawsuit and to put the agreed-upon reforms into a new consent decree.
However, on June 25, 2009, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in an Arizona case that the Maryland Attorney General's Office believes may have a profound impact on the ability of a court to enter into and enforce consent decrees when they exceed the requirements of federal law. The attorney general, as an officer of the court, had the professional obligation to bring that case to the court's attention.
At last week's hearing, United States District Court Judge Frederick Motz recognized that the state had an obligation to bring the case to light. Two legal scholars who monitor consent decrees around the country also agree that the Arizona case may be far-reaching in calling into question the ability of a court to enforce consent decrees. The judge postponed making any decisions on these new legal questions and issues until October.
Meanwhile, we have made impressive progress for children. In just two years, we have: reduced the number of children in foster care in Baltimore City by 20 percent; achieved a record number of adoptions; recruited new foster parents; reduced caseloads for front line workers; retrained our staff and instituted a new level of accountability across the agency. In addition to the outstanding leadership of city social services Director Molly McGrath and her committed staff, these accomplishments reflect solid institutional reforms that will live on beyond any one individual or administration.
There is no evidence that this 25-year-old consent decree is the reason for recent improvements for Baltimore City's foster children. I believe what has mattered most is our focused commitment to finding permanent homes for children and our experience in this challenging field.
In addition, The Sun incorrectly asserted that accountability is absent without continued court oversight. Quite the contrary. The Department of Human Resources is accountable to the federal government, the state legislature - and of course - to Gov. O'Malley. He demands the highest level of public accountability as evidenced by his effective data-driven StateStat program in which DHR undergoes routine and rigorous examination of our performance in a number of critical areas. That performance data is available to the public.
It is true - there is still much work to be done, but court oversight or consent decrees are not needed to continue the reforms well under way during the past 2-1/2 years. We believe that investing money and resources directly into reforming the foster care system is the obvious and better way to go. Our commitment to Baltimore's most vulnerable children is absolute and unwavering.
Brenda Donald is the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.