Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes today announced a new program designed to reunite 1,000 children in Maryland foster care programs with their parents during the next 18 months.

Known as the "Family Reunification Program," the project will be funded by $2.75 million given to the state as part of the Federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. Hughes said the new program will be the largest of its kind in the nation.

The program will be run by the state's social services administration, which is part of the Department of Human Resources. Human Resources Secretary Ruth Massinga said the department believes that at least 2,000 of the 6,000 Maryland children currently receiving foster care could be reunited with their families if caseworkers had enough time to work with individuals.

Providing those caseworkers is what the reunification program is designed to do, according to Hughes. Sixty caseworkers will be assigned no more than 20 cases each. Over the next 18 months, the 1,000 children will be returned to their families, and they and the families will work with the social workers to make the reunification succeed.

Hughes cited national statistics that show that close to 75 percent of all children separated from their families and placed in foster care programs could be returned to their homes if individual caseworkers were available.

Children are generally placed in foster homes because their parents have neglected them, abused them, or have been simply unable to care for them. Drug problems in the home are another reason for sending children to foster homes. The average stay in a Maryland foster home is four years, according to Human Resources statistics.