A panel of Maryland lawmakers reviewing planned improvements in the state's foster care system said yesterday that state agency officials have not yet addressed critical long-term problems in the troubled system.
"This really isn't a plan for foster care . . . about where it's going, where it's going to develop, where the funding aspects are going to be over an extended period of time," said Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Mongtomery), head of a House Appropriations subcommittee on human resources.
State social service officials reported today that they had reviewed 821 of the 1,120 foster homes licensed by Baltimore, and had closed 221 of them to further placements. Thirty-two children were removed from the homes. The rest of the homes in Baltimore, which has by far the state's largest foster care caseload, are scheduled to be reviewed by the end of July.
State officials said they will review foster homes in other parts of the state by the end of the year.
Kopp called the hearing to review how state officials plan to spend a multi-million dollar increase in state funds for foster care that the General Assembly approved last winter. "These are good corrective actions," Kopp said, "but the hard thinking about where we want to go is not evidenced in the plan."
She and other lawmakers sharply questioned what they consider delays in review of foster homes statewide, the schedule for providing training for foster parents and agency staff, and development of techniques to evaluate the performance of supervisory staff. Agency officials responded by saying that they are under pressure to make improvements in many areas at once, in some cases with the help of the same staff expected to maintain the regular work of the agency.
"It's a question of overloading that we have to be sensitive to," said Frank Farrow, director of the state Social Services Administration. Farrow represented the state's Department of Human Resources, which supervises but does not directly control each individual county or city agency.
Maryland's foster care system has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months in the wake of a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Baltimore last December, alleging that at least half a dozen children, already suffering from some form of mistreatment by natural parents, were again seriously neglected or abused after placement in city-licensed foster homes.
Partly in response to that suit, Gov. Harry Hughes and the General Assembly agreed this winter to a massive increase in funds to foster care in the fiscal year that began Monday.
But although lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to approve funds to upgrade staff training, hire additional case workers, improve rates paid to foster parents, and experiment with alternatives to foster care, many insisted that the agency account closely for the funds throughout the budget year and inform the legislature of actions taken to correct immediate problems.
He also said that local departments are already having difficulty in recruiting new social workers, that response to efforts to recruit new foster homes also has been slight, and that there are few vacancies in available foster homes. On the positive side, he noted that new training sessions for foster parents have been generally well received, and several demonstration projects to develop alternatives to foster care are under way.
Nevertheless, several lawmakers criticized officials for failing to speed up the reviews of existing foster homes in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The committee directed social service officials to report back to it by Sept. 1 on their progress in addressing the committee's criticisms.