Group homes want certification requirement scrapped

Proposal up for hearings Thursday in Annapolis

February 24, 2011|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Operators of private group homes that serve troubled youths across Maryland are asking the legislature to scrap a forthcoming requirement that their staff members be certified by the state, calling it expensive and unnecessary.

But state regulators and some legislators, who imposed the new rule after reports in 2005 of mistreatment and lax management in group homes, say the certification is needed to help protect vulnerable children.

A bill scheduled for discussion in two General Assembly committees Thursday would do away with the certification mandate — not set to take effect until 2015 — for employees at about 30 "therapeutic" group homes that care for youths with the most challenging array of emotional and behavioral problems.

But an association representing a broader swath of group homes for minors wants to expand the proposed exemption to apply to its 53 providers, too.

More than 2,000 youths reside in private group homes statewide, placed by agencies such as the Department of Human Resources and Department of Juvenile Services. Many of the youths are victims of abuse and neglect, though some are delinquents.

Industry advocates argue that the new credential requirement — an outgrowth of a 2005 series in The Baltimore Sun that documented poor state monitoring of group homes — threatens the financial viability of group home operators, given that rates paid by the state to care for the children have been frozen for years. Group home administrators, who already must be certified, pay $100 initially and an additional $50 every two years.

In addition, existing requirements are sufficient for therapeutic homes, maintains Lori Doyle, a lobbyist for the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, some of whose members run therapeutic homes. Her association asked for the legislation being considered Thursday.

"We're already required to do an awful lot of training, and we have a lot of standards we meet," Doyle said. Staff members must complete 40 hours of training initially and 40 hours more per year, and those homes are capped at eight residents, with a 1-to-3 staff-to-resident ratio.

The rollback effort has drawn strong opposition from within state government.

"We are adamantly opposed to it," said Kimberly Mayer, executive director of the State Board for the Certification of Residential Child Care Program Administrators. Since 2007 the board has overseen certification of group home administrators and has been preparing to extend that to employees in 2015.

"These are individuals who have been entrusted to care and provide supervision for extremely vulnerable children," Mayer said, speaking of therapeutic group homes. Certification would raise the bar, she said. Full certification would require meeting one of three levels: a college degree; high school plus completion of an approved training program; or high school plus two years "human service" experience.

In response to the cost complaint, Mayer said individuals could pay for their own certification, as they do in other industries.

Doyle said group home jobs are already hard to fill with hourly rates of $11. Her association argues certification should be made voluntary, with the state offering higher rates to encourage providers to certify employees. She calls that a "market-driven carrot approach."

The proposed exemption is also opposed by Carmen A. Brown, executive director of the state Office of Licensing and Monitoring. Brown took over in 2006, when the office was put under the human resources chief — one of several changes meant to bolster group home oversight after The Sun's investigation.

Rather than rewrite the law, Brown said she and other regulators would be willing to sit down with group home providers "to really determine what's the best way to assure appropriate staff training and credentialing." But Doyle expressed doubts that would achieve results.

The legislation creating the certification requirement for group home staff members was sponsored in 2008 by Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. He is "completely against" the current bill.

"Why should direct-care staff in group homes [who are] working directly with some of our most troubled and at-risk kids be exempted from being certified?" he said. "That makes no sense whatsoever."

Zirkin added: "We should be moving in the direction having the most trained, the most competent staff people we can find to work with these kids."

Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, lead sponsor in the House, said she was comfortable introducing the measure. "To exempt this group in tough economic times, I don't see any big problem with it, when they're trying to stay open and we're cutting money from the budget left and right," she said. A Baltimore County Democrat, she said she is satisfied with the state's oversight.

The Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth Inc. pushed for Zirkin's certification bill in 2008, yet now wants that requirement struck from the law.

"Our folks just don't have the money," said the association's executive director, Shelley L. Tinney. "Believe me, we are a firm believer that certification would result in a better work force with better services for kids. But if the state really believes this is necessary and worthwhile, they've got to work with us."

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