Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services did not consistently implement or review treatment plans for its young charges, according to an audit released Wednesday, a failure that cost the state $3 million in Medicaid money at a time when officials were cutting programs to close budget gaps.
The agency also neglected to properly document the supervision of some troubled teens, the audit by the state Department of Legislative Services found, including those in its hallmark Violence Prevention Initiative, a community program for young people most at risk of killing or being killed.
The agency's failure to submit contracts to the state Board of Public Works on time, meanwhile, forced the spending panel to approve nearly $150 million in agreements after work had already begun, the auditor reported.
"This has got to be one of the more depressing audits I've ever read," said Matthew Joseph, director of Baltimore's Advocates for Children and Youth, a watchdog of Juvenile Services. "It goes to the heart of the agency's functions. It questions how the agency is even able to operate."
The Department of Juvenile Services said it has corrected problems documented in the audit, which covered the period from August 2006 to mid-October 2009. In 2009, the agency had contact with about 33,000 juveniles — teenagers and children who have been charged with or found responsible for crimes — and spent about $275 million handling everything from intake and detention to treatment and community supervision.
Department spokesman Jay Cleary said "a lot of these issues that are pointed out are issues that we inherited" — a reference to the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is running to win his old job back from Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Cleary acknowledged that the "efficiency" issues uncovered by the audit continued under the watch of Donald W. DeVore, whom O'Malley appointed secretary of juvenile services in 2007. Cleary said the agency had worked diligently to address the problems.
In a letter of response to auditor Bruce A. Myers, DeVore wrote that his recommendations "provide helpful strategies to address the audit findings. The department is committed to addressing all audit findings."
Though the agency agreed with most of the auditor's findings, it disputed a point about failing to supervise juveniles in 43 percent of the cases in a sample that was checked. The agency, in its response to the auditor, said it's not that supervision didn't occur. Rather, it wasn't documented.
"We feel very confident that our case managers are getting out and seeing the kids on a regular schedule," Cleary said. "It boils down to documenting and staying organized."
He said the agency is working to eliminate paper documentation of juvenile supervision in favor of an electronic system.
The agency appeared to take a haphazard approach to contracts with private group home providers. Judges can sentence juveniles to live in those community-based settings instead of sending them to more secure state-run facilities.
The agency failed to submit more than 50 contracts to the state Board of Public Works, in apparent violation of state procurement law. After the auditor brought the issue to the agency's attention, officials sought retroactive approval for the contracts, which were valued at a total of $148.5 million.
The Board of Public Works, made up of O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, typically frowns on the submission of emergency and retroactive contracts. State procurement regulations generally require the board's approval on contracts of $200,000 or more.
Only after the auditor identified large contracts that had not been submitted to the panel did the agency seek its approval for them.
Furthermore, the department did not always monitor payments to make sure they did not exceed the contract value and had not consistently performed quality control to make sure the state was getting what it paid for. A department review of 204 contracts identified $1.9 million in overpayments; as of March 2010, the department had not performed audits for about 300 contracts.
Cleary attributed those findings to "an inherited backlog of contracts."
Observers of the agency have long called for the professionalization of its workers, in part by increasing their pay — a challenge in the tight fiscal times of the past few years. However, the Department of Juvenile Services has largely been spared from budget cuts, while other state agencies have experienced significant belt-tightening.
"Recruiting and then retaining skilled and experienced staff who are committed to youth development and rehabilitation is essential to youth safety and ultimately, to their successful rehabilitation," state juvenile justice monitor Marlana Valdez, an employee of the Maryland attorney general's office, wrote in her 2009 annual report.