Maryland's Department of Human Resources is facing a $1.5 million penalty as of today for failing to hire enough child welfare caseworkers by a deadline mandated by the General Assembly.

Secretary of Human Resources Christopher J. McCabe acknowledged in an interview yesterday that his department would fall short of a target of 1,880 workers and supervisors but expressed hope that legislators would provide some leniency.

"There's really no value in imposing a penalty on the department," McCabe said. "To try to take away money really makes no sense."

McCabe alerted legislators in a letter last month that the department had 1,742 filled positions at the time and was not likely to meet the target, which was included in last year's state budget. McCabe said that 103 workers had been hired by January but that 96 had left during the same period.

Child welfare caseworkers are charged with protecting children in abusive homes.

Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said discussions are underway to determine whether to grant the department an extension on the requirement.

"My sense is there won't be, but we'll see," Currie said.

Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was not eager to penalize the department. But he added, "Unfortunately, with departments, sometimes there are continuing issues raised, and it's the only thing that gets attention."

Hiring child welfare workers has been a chronic problem for the department. Starting pay for the job is typically in the low- to mid-$30,000 range, a department spokesman said. McCabe said that besides the modest pay, employees face stress and complicated work.

When children in state custody are harmed, state workers are blamed, often unfairly, he said.

"When something goes wrong or a child is harmed or killed, society likes to blame somebody, and they typically blame the government," he said.

McCabe's letter to lawmakers last month outlined several steps taken to speed up recruitment, including participation in job fairs and a new "quick hire" process.

Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth, a child advocacy group in Maryland, said the department's hiring efforts have been hindered by the rapid turnover.

"It's like they're bailing water from a leaking boat," she said.

Rubinstein said she, too, was not eager to see the department lose money.

But she added: "It makes sense to enforce legislation that was passed in order to protect children. We don't want to see an already stressed budget further stressed, but the answer is for the department to do what's mandated in a timely way."

Separately yesterday, the state was recognized for a modest decrease in out-of-wedlock births in recent years.

Maryland was one of four states to receive a $25 million bonus from the federal government in recognition of its decline. Between 1999 and 2002, the out-of-wedlock birth rate fell 0.33 percent, officials said.

McCabe was joined at an event acknowledging the achievement by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and Wade F. Horn, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal government awards bonuses annually as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.