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Md. Foster Care Draws Scrutiny

Ehrlich's Challenge to Media on Former State Worker Backfires

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page B01

When Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood in front of the State House on Thursday and called on news reporters to investigate Michelle Lane, he said he suspected a little digging would expose her role in a politically motivated conspiracy to tar his reputation.

Instead, lawmakers and public advocates have begun to review documents and e-mails that the former Ehrlich loyalist wrote in 2003 before being fired from her state job. They say Lane's correspondence may reveal something altogether different: deep flaws in the governor's handling of the state's foster care system.

Michelle Lane, who worked for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has accused his aides of trying to smear her. (Maryland Governor's Office Via AP)

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"If what she wrote is true," state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said, "it's nuclear."

Already yesterday, lawmakers and advocates for foster care children were calling for a separate investigation into the concerns Lane laid out in a series of letters and memos to top state officials. At the same time, the Republican governor's aides were trying to put the focus on Lane's possible ties to Democratic operatives.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said his office might request a formal review of a memo from Lane that the governor called "blackmail." In that Feb. 13 e-mail, Lane accused the governor's aides of trying to smear her and threatened that if she wasn't left alone, she would distribute damaging correspondence she received from Joseph Steffen, the former Ehrlich booster who was fired days earlier for circulating rumors about a political rival.

Schurick said Lane's decision to hire Daniel Clements, a Baltimore lawyer with deep ties to the state Democratic Party, proves that she is "clearly part of the orchestrated anti-Ehrlich establishment."

"Her attorney is [former Democratic governor] Parris N. Glendening's personal attorney," Schurick said. "What more do you need to know?"

Top Democratic lawmakers dismissed those assertions, calling Ehrlich's blackmail and conspiracy claims part of a ham-handed effort to divert attention from his own actions.

"Their method, when presented with legitimate criticism, is to lash out," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said. "I've never heard of this lady before yesterday, but it sounds like, for a long time, she was a trusted member of [Ehrlich's] entourage."

Lane, a Republican, worked as an unpaid fellow in Ehrlich's congressional office, then on his campaign, on his transition team and in his administration before being fired in June. Lane has said she was not given a reason for her dismissal but was escorted from her office by armed guards.

Both Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said they were deeply disturbed not by Lane's "blackmail" e-mail to the governor, but by the memos she wrote as a state employee sounding alarms about the foster care system.

The records, which Lane provided to The Washington Post, appear to document her repeated efforts to alert top officials in the Ehrlich administration to evidence that the state was neglecting foster care children by assigning them to social workers who were on leave or retired.

Lane said in an interview that she was "shocked" by the discovery and alerted her boss, Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe. "I thought he would be shocked and outraged, as I was. . . . He wasn't," said Lane, who ran the department's office of planning.

Lane then started sending memos to other top officials. In a September 2003 memo to M. Teresa Garland, the special secretary for children, youth and families, Lane described how she uncovered violations of a court decree that required the state to limit the number of foster care children assigned to each state social worker.

Lane wrote that she "discovered that there were children assigned to workers who were no longer employed by the state." She said this illegal practice explained why an internal audit found foster care children going without being seen by a social worker "for months at a time -- with the most severe case, a young girl, who had not been visited for seventeen months."

Worse, she said in an interview, were "fatality reports coming across my desk for children connected to the Baltimore City foster care system." She said she counted eight deaths that "appeared to be avoidable."

Norris West, a spokesman for McCabe's department, said the social service system has seen substantial improvement since that time and that Lane's allegations were disputed by a review of the foster care system conducted last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a children's advocacy group.

Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a Baltimore lawyer who represents the interests of the state's foster care children, disagreed, saying the Casey review "relied on the information they were given. I would not call it a thorough determination of the accuracy of the system."

Mirviss said he believes Lane may have uncovered crucial evidence of neglect that his office long suspected but could never prove.

It's "an indication that the closed and secretive nature of the foster care system has allowed problems to develop without detection, straining the system, unfairly treating workers who have to labor under excessive caseloads, and resulting in a lack of services to our most vulnerable children in our society," Mirviss said. He said he will seek a formal investigation into the matter.

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