Night after night, Kamiyah Wright settled on a couch in the lobby of a Baltimore Social Services office downtown and tried to sleep. Sometimes, the young woman said, she shared the couch with other teens.
“All of us smooshing up, trying to sleep; it was uncomfortable,” said Wright, 19, who has spent six years in city foster care. “They didn’t even give you no pillow or cover.”
Thirty years after entering into a federal consent decree over how it handles foster children, Baltimore Social Services has been housing them illegally again in its offices downtown, according to attorneys representing city foster children.
State law requires that foster children sleep in licensed facilities, but the agency’s offices are not licensed. Such a sleeping arrangement is forbidden by the 1988 consent decree, which resulted from the ongoing class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of the children. By law, they may not stay longer than four hours in the offices.
Yet attorneys Mitchell Mirviss and Joan Little, who represent foster children in Baltimore, said it’s happening again with greater regularity. So far this year, the agency has kept more than 100 children in unlicensed facilities longer than four hours, said Mirviss, who receives reports of such violations because he represents foster children in the lawsuit. Some of them spent the night inside the Social Services office on North Gay Street, he said.
Little, chief of child advocacy at the nonprofit Maryland Legal Aid, has represented some of the children who spent the night in the office. Little said she began to hear of the overnight stays at the start of this summer.
The office, which is staffed 24 hours a day, lacks a shower, cafeteria and license to shelter the children. Wright said she slept there on and off from May to June, when her social worker couldn’t find her a foster family or other placement. The young woman ate breakfast from McDonald’s.
“It was me and six other kids,” she said. “Don’t nobody want to be there.”
Social Services officials declined interview requests, but in a written statement Friday, Director Stacy Rodgers acknowledged some recent issues. While the agency properly placed 243 foster children per month — or 94 percent — within four hours in the year ended June 30, placements took an average of 9.8 hours for the other 6 percent, she said in the statement. Agency officials also conceded they had trouble placing seven children beginning in April.
“We take this responsibility extremely seriously, and make every effort to find an appropriate placement for every youth that comes into our care as quickly as humanly possible,” Rodgers said.
Attorney Rhonda Lipkin, who was appointed by the court to monitor the agency’s implementation of consent decree reforms, declined to comment on the overnight stays. Lipkin said she will address the matter in detail in a report she files in about a month.
Mirviss said a shortage of foster homes and a dramatic reduction in group homes have left the agency without places for all children. Last year brought the closure of Good Shepherd Services, a longtime residential treatment program for adolescents in Halethorpe, which housed foster children.
“Their array of placement options shrank,” Mirviss said. “They were caught short.”
Another challenge is that some foster families are reluctant to take teenagers and children with behavioral and mental health difficulties, leaving older children with no place to spend the night.
Often, Little said, these children require counseling and medication.
“The travesty in all this is really that the children suffer because of a sort of bureaucratic problem,” she said. “We just have to get this right. There’s no benefit for a child being in an office building for one day, two days, any amount.”
It’s a familiar challenge for Baltimore Social Services. Mirviss and other lawyers who monitor the agency filed a complaint with the state attorney general 13 years ago after they learned that the overnight stays had become commonplace. Officials pledged reforms; the practice dwindled.
From 2009 to early 2016, no more than five children spent four hours or more in an unlicensed facility during a six-month stretch, social workers reported.
The agency’s reports for 2017 and 2018 have not yet been published, but Mirviss said the numbers have shot back up. Under the consent decree, city social workers are required to notify him of violations within five days. Some 66 children spent four hours or more in an unlicensed facility during the second half of 2017, he said. In 2018, he said, the number has about doubled to 130 children.
Last week, a 1-year-old spent nearly seven hours overnight in the Gay Street office, he said.
“There was a surge in late spring, early summer,” Mirviss said. “It’s not acceptable. It’s illegal. They are taking it very seriously.”
State and city officials hold daily conference calls, even on weekends, to try to find proper placements for the children.
Efforts to end the overnight office stays date to the late 1980s, when private lawyers and the nonprofit Public Justice Center sued Baltimore Social Services in federal court, accusing the agency of failing to properly care for foster children. The court imposed the consent decree and its reforms in 1988 after finding that officials were not providing enough foster homes, failing to remove children from abuse and neglect, and placing them with foster parents who were poorly trained and equipped.
Social Services has made progress in recent months. Mirviss said the frequency of the overnight stays declined as the summer went on.
Mirviss said officials have outfitted Social Services offices with cots, clothing and personal-hygiene supplies. A smaller number of foster children also have stayed overnight at Social Services offices on Calvert and East Biddle streets.
Wright said the lack of placements was frustrating to some of the children. She said some would vandalize offices, hassle staff, fight and sneak out. “They kept trying to run away,” Wright said, “leaving at all hours of the night, coming back high and drugged up.”
Wright agreed through her attorney to discuss sleeping in the Gay Street office on the condition that she not talk about one alleged encounter there in June.
The 19-year-old is charged with second-degree assault; police say she poured a bottle of urine on a sleeping girl.
Janette DeBoissiere, her public defender, said she was concerned about Wright’s welfare as a foster child. The teen is scheduled for trial Sept. 19 in Baltimore Circuit Court.
She moved about a month ago into a rented apartment, one with a bed to herself and cable TV.
Wright lost her key recently and returned to the Gay Street office for help. There, she recognized a boy who she said often slept in the lobby last spring.
“I’m like, ‘Dang!’ ” she said. “They ain’t find you no placement yet?”