A 15-year-old Maryland girl died at a facility in Delaware for severely developmentally disabled youths, authorities said Tuesday, after the state already had decided to sever ties with the operators.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources said that it had canceled its contract with AdvoServe effective Oct. 31, but had not found appropriate places to send all of the 31 youths housed in company institutions when the girl died.
The unidentified girl died at the Bear, Del., facility in mid-September, authorities said. Neither AdvoServe nor the Department of Human Resouces would provide more information Tuesday.
"Understandably, our agency and caseworkers were hit hard by this tragedy," Department of Human Resources spokeswoman Katherine Morris said in a statement.
"The death of a child is never news that is easy to process," she said. "We are taking this case very seriously, as the safety and well-being of youth in our care is our top priority. DHR is in close contact with the authorities in Delaware who are investigating this incident."
The Delaware State Police and the office of the medical examiner are investigating, according to the Delaware attorney general's office. There have been no charges.
Morris said the Department of Human Resources had canceled its contract and instituted a moratorium on new placements "as a result of an intensive review of the program, including several unannounced visits DHR made to AdvoServ."
She did not specify when the decision was made to cancel the contract, but said it was before the girl died.
All but one of the Maryland youths has been placed elsewhere, Morris said. One was moved from a AdvoServ facility in Florida to another in that state.
Maryland's three-year contract with AdvoServ was approved in 2012 with two one-year extensions, according to documents provided by the Department of Human Resources. The contract was scheduled to expire in February. Payments to AdvoServe were not supposed to exceed about $7.9 million a year and were capped at about $39.8 million. It's unclear how much was paid to the company.
AdvoServ declined to answer questions about the death.
"Our staff is heartbroken over the loss of the young woman in our care, and our deepest sympathies go out to her mother and extended family," the company said in a statement.
This is not the first time that a child has died in a group home managed by a state contractor. Damaud Martin, a 10-year-old Baltimore boy, died in July 2014 at a Laurel-area group home for disabled foster children.
Maryland health regulators later said that they found serious violations at the LifeLine group home, including conflicting records on his care and miscommunication between staff and the emergency responders and medical personnel who labored to save him. However, they said none of the violations contributed to his death. That conclusion surprised child advocates who called the investgation flawed.
Advocates for youth say the latest incident demonstrates the difficulty of providing services for children with the sometimes severe emotional and behavioral problems.
Washington attorney Chris Gowen has filed a lawsuit on behalf of another Maryland child who he alleges was assaulted at a AdvoServ facility.
"The state of Maryland has a real challenge to find alternative placements for youth with severe disabilities, and the answer to that challenge can't be to send them all out of state to a school that takes anyone," he said.
Leslie Seid Margolis, a managing attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said she's been warning the state of Maryland about AdvoServ's practices for years. She cited the company's use of a type of restraint prohibited under Maryland law.
She said her group, a federally mandated advocate for people with disabilities, will investigate the death and determine what went wrong and how to prevent harm in the future.
Maryland routinely sends children out of state when appropriate facilities are not available in the state. She called it a "system failure" that youths have to be sent away from home, in some cases far from home, for proper services and education.
Margolis said some parents don't have the support or resources to care for their children and they have to allow them to be placed in facilities such as AdvoServ's. The company has facilities in Delaware, New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut.
"I only wish Maryland had removed the kids sooner," she said.