A 13-year-old African American girl has been missing from the Prince George's County foster care system since May. Her story has not been in the news, and three months went by before the county Department of Social Services even reported the girl missing. A severe shortage of caseworkers caused by budget cuts, burnout and attrition has left the department unable to respond to the missing girl or to many other children who desperately need help.

Prince George's County is not alone in having a caseworker shortage. The problem is nationwide. According to the National Association of Social Workers, in 2003 the average child welfare worker caseload was twice that recommended by recognized national standards.

As a court-appointed advocate for children in the Prince George's foster care system, I have seen the devastating effects of this shortage of caseworkers. Children such as the missing teenager, who are victims of abuse and neglect, go without services that are necessary to their safety, protection and well-being.

At a recent child welfare meeting, Wayne T. Stevenson, executive director of the Maryland Social Services Administration, gave the following example to highlight the effect caseworker shortages have on the child welfare system:

Suppose a social worker has a caseload of 30 families. That leaves the social worker with five hours a month to devote to each family. When factoring in court time, transportation, supervision meetings and emergencies, the level of service declines further.

Ultimately, the social worker has about 45 minutes a week to devote to each family. Under those awful conditions, tragic outcomes are inevitable.

Caseworker-caseload ratios are an indicator of how well a child welfare system is responding to the needs of children and families in its care. A widely accepted standard, developed by the Child Welfare League of America, is one to 15. In 1998 the Maryland General Assembly required social service agencies to use this standard as a guideline for developing appropriate ratios. However, the legislative mandate has languished without funding. As a result, social workers are overworked, and months pass without anyone searching for a missing child.

Nearly 700 children were in foster care in Prince George's County at the end of 2004, according to the Citizens Review Board for Children, an advisory panel on child welfare established by the Maryland General Assembly. These children will spend an average of nearly three years in foster care before being placed in permanent homes, well above the average length of stay across the region. In the District and Virginia, children remain in foster care for 26.4 months and 27.5 months, respectively, on average.

The shortcomings in the county foster care system aren't new. Prince George's and jurisdictions across Maryland have struggled for years to provide quality child welfare services. In 2001 the federal government began a nationwide review of child and family services to find out if states were meeting their responsibilities. Maryland failed that review in 11 of 14 categories.

In response to its poor rating, the Maryland Department of Human Resources developed a program improvement plan and submitted it to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in September 2004. The plan has not been made public yet.

In the meantime, a 13-year-old girl couldn't wait for the state to get its act together. She ran away from a system that let her down. I pray for her safety, stability and welfare, but I know that it's only a matter of time before another child disappears.

-- Ann Marie Foley Binsner

is executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocate of Prince George's County Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a voice for abused and neglected children.