Senora Marshall

Senora Marshall ran the Children of Life group home without adequate credentials. (Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri / October 28, 2004)

Group homes for children can employ almost anyone -- even convicted criminals.

Children of Life employed two key figures in one of the nation's largest drug paraphernalia rings. The women cooked and cared for youths at group homes in Harford County even after being convicted. They kept working there until their sentencing nine months later.

A ringleader of the paraphernalia distribution scheme also had ties. He helped incorporate Children of Life and for a while lent it office space and organized its payroll. Sometimes, he gave the kids candy.

State officials who licensed, funded and inspected Children of Life said they didn't know about the drug connections. "We'll have to check into that," Craig G. Adams, a top regulator, said after The Sun informed him last fall.

In fact, for years regulators seemed to know little about the people working at Children of Life, including the woman in charge. Senora Marshall, though not implicated in the drug scheme, was unqualified to run a group home. Under state rules, she should never have been entrusted with the foster children who eventually had to be removed from her care.

At many group homes, employees don't meet state standards for qualifications and training, an investigation by The Sun found. The Department of Human Resources, which oversees most of the state's privately run homes, often does not enforce its staffing rules and never does its own background checks.

People who have no experience, little education or criminal records readily find work in a field where low pay fuels high turnover. Ill-prepared when they arrive, many employees receive little or no training.

Scant qualifications and inadequate training often result in poor care. That's what happened at Children of Life, which took in kids from 1998 to 2004 without regulators detecting the drug ties and Marshall's lack of qualifications. It wasn't until after social services workers had complained and The Sun made inquiries that the state moved to close the homes.

Problems "border on neglect," the assistant director for services at Harford County's Department of Social Services wrote last year to the Department of Human Resources. Children went to bed without dinner, failed to get their medications, hit younger residents and were supervised by staff high on marijuana, if there was any staff around at all, county social services workers complained. Their letters and e-mails going back to 2003 were obtained by the newspaper from state files.

Experts stress the need for skilled workers because they're responsible for feeding, medicating and guiding children with complex needs. Children sent to group homes include teenage drug dealers needing tough love, the medically fragile requiring constant assistance, the emotionally disturbed who are prescribed a number of medications, and victims of neglect who have not known a stable, let alone loving, relationship.

"They're really some of the most troubled kids in our state, and we're putting some of the least-experienced people with them, and it doesn't make sense," said Edward T. Kilcullen Jr., a former group home worker who is state director of the Maryland Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, which assigns volunteers to represent foster children in the Juvenile Court system.

Lack of accountability

Lax oversight of staffing is part of a pattern of failed regulation that leaves children vulnerable to abuse and neglect, The Sun found.

The Department of Human Resources doesn't adequately enforce rules or rigorously inspect group homes. Good and bad group homes are paid the same rates, and some company executives take advantage of the system to enrich themselves, friends and relatives.

State officials say they believe most administrators and staff meet the personnel requirements. They point out that new regulations would have prohibited hiring of people like those in the drug business working at Children of Life. That company, they add, is no longer caring for children.

Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe played down The Sun's examples as isolated cases. He said his agency is now checking the credentials of group home administrators during inspections and double-checking to ensure that counselors receive their required 40 hours of annual training.

But given limited resources, he said, inspectors can't vet the qualifications of all employees.

"It's really up to the operator," he said.

Questionable credentials