At the beginning of the O'Malley-Brown administration, Maryland had far too many children in foster care, too many foster children in group homes and too few foster parents. The law virtually required the Department of Human Resources to license any new group home meeting minimum standards, despite the fact that most of the state was already oversaturated with group homes. Our procedures for processing applications for social service programs were outdated and inefficient. It had been more than 20 years since the law was changed to update the amount of child support a parent had to pay.
We knew our reforms would require a steady commitment, patience, tenacity and a willingness to challenge the status quo. We faced budget cuts, staff shortages and a skeptical group of advocates — most of whom were unconvinced that a historically troubled and underfunded agency could make real progress.
In 2007, DHR launched Place Matters, a comprehensive framework for reforming Maryland's child welfare system. While the steps have been difficult and tedious at times, the results are undeniable. We've reduced the number of children in foster care by 20 percent; reduced the number of children in group homes by 50 percent; and finalized record numbers of adoptions: 2,100 in the last three years. We remained true to our original credo: Nothing matters more to a child than a place to call home.
In 2008, largely prompted by the tragic death of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris, Gov. Martin O'Malley demanded DHR redouble our efforts in Baltimore City, home to 60 percent of our foster care kids. We brought in a talented new director, Molly McGrath, whose leadership has moved Baltimore City from worst to first. It is now our flagship local department, both in foster care and in providing services to poor families.
Fortunately, we have also made key progress for other children as well, not just those in foster care.
Together with the Maryland General Assembly, we updated the 22-year-old child support guidelines, which will ultimately increase the financial stability of hundreds of thousands of children. After October, when the new guidelines go into effect, the average child support payment will be $75 more a month, depending on income.
When the national economy soured, DHR began to see record numbers of new applicants for social service programs — many of whom never before relied on help from the government to make ends meet. We've seen an 86 percent increase in food stamp enrollees; a 34 percent increase on our temporary cash assistance caseload; and a 19 percent increase in medical assistance cases.
Because of these increases, DHR had trouble keeping up with demand, and we were ordered by a federal judge to process applications for food stamps, Medicaid and temporary cash assistance within the federally mandated 30 day timeframe. So, we developed a comprehensive plan to retool and expedite our application intake process. In addition to making us step up our game through rigorous reporting at his biweekly StateStat sessions, Governor O'Malley thawed the hiring freeze for eligibility workers so that we could fill critical staffing needs. Our plan is working, and we are finally seeing a much-needed reduction in the time it takes to meet the demands of our customers. While I am proud of this progress, DHR still has some way to go to improve our frontline procedures.
As I move on from DHR and begin a new stage in my career next week at Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation, I've no doubt that under the O'Malley-Brown administration, Maryland will continue this positive progress even in tough economic times. The reforms we've implemented at DHR are not unique to our agency, but instead are part of a wholesale vision of making government more responsive and accountable to the people we serve, and I'm honored to have been a part of it.
Brenda Donald is the secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Her e-mail is ----