A step backward for Md.'s most vulnerable

Gov. O'Malley moving away from successful model for serving families and children

March 11, 2010|By Frank Farrow

Over a decade ago, Maryland was among a small number of states at the forefront of a bold new effort to make sure that vulnerable families and children had access to services where they live. Maryland's leadership in creating local management boards, or LMBs, helped other states understand that centralized services are less efficient and effective because one size does not fit all.

Maryland realized that programs created by people in an office in Baltimore cannot match the needs of families in the hundreds of communities where services are delivered and designed. Since then, many other states have moved to invest in better results through community-developed services and supports. Maryland's reasons for providing services to vulnerable children and families through local management boards are even more valid today than when they were established: This approach saves state money and produces better results. These goals have never been more important to Maryland than now, when the state is recovering slowly from a national recession.

Ironically, while most states and the federal government are following Maryland's long-ago lead by focusing more on local decision-making as a way to achieve measurable results, Maryland itself is moving backward. The effort by the Governor's Office for Children to eliminate virtually all funding for LMBs and their programs moves away from a proven way of organizing services to an older model that never demonstrated success.

Centralizing services in state agencies may appear to contain costs -- by reducing the staff who ensure that services are most efficiently allocated -- but in fact it will increase costs this year and for many years to come. Increased costs to the state are likely immediately, as children move into costly state placements or facilities to receive the services no longer available in their communities. Speaking as someone who served in Maryland state government, this cost containment strategy is short-sighted, ill-conceived and misinformed.

LMBs work well because they bring local community leaders together to examine their needs and then customize services to match families' needs. We know this works because LMBs are required to track how well their services are delivered and how well the recipients of those services are doing.

For example, of the 579 youths served by the Washington County LMB's Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Diversion Initiative in 2008, 84 percent did not re-offend within one year after completing the program. Another case: The Baltimore City LMB-administered Family Recovery Program that provides intensive services to substance-abusing parents with an infant or young child in foster care. A national evaluation determined that Family Recovery Program families were more than 1.5 times more likely to be reunited than other families; children spend 100 less days in foster care; and parents are twice as likely to complete drug treatment.

This is different from too many other state-funded programs, which only report on the number of people served, or track "process" measures such as how many placements a child experiences. The accountability system for LMBs goes to the heart of the matter and measures whether children are better off. In part for that reason, LMBs have until now been the first line of defense for families in trouble, while centralized, state-administered services have been the last resort. That will all change if the current plan is allowed to proceed.

Here is what Maryland stands to lose:

• LMBs leveraging of other funds so that state dollars stretch much further. Local leaders use state funds to attract other local, private and federal dollars, thus "expanding the pie."

• Improved outcomes for children and families through cost-effective, locally designed and delivered services.

• Solid partnerships among local leaders that prioritize and reorganize services based on the greatest need identified locally.

• Accountability based on clear results and transparency about what has been accomplished.

• Fewer children and youth in state placements or institutions, both in state and out of state, because they are receiving the help they need in their homes and in their communities.

This is too high a price to pay, with no real return. To eliminate LMBs and the services they support locally is a momentous public policy shift for Maryland. It sets back 20 years of local commitment and investment. It reverts to a centralized state approach that undercuts local communities' decisions. And it shortchanges children, yielding worse outcomes and significantly higher costs.

Before such drastic steps are taken, the evidence in favor of local management boards should be weighed and local voices heard. The Center for the Study of Social Policy urges the General Assembly to spend the summer examining the facts, weighing the options, listening to constituents and then determining the best course of action. Maryland's innovation in this area once led the country. Let's not turn back the clock -- and fail families and children at the same time.

Frank Farrow, director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, is former director of the Social Services Administration in the Maryland Department of Human Resources. His e-mail is frank.farrow@cssp.org.

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