Assailing Maryland's lax oversight of children's group homes, legislative leaders pledged yesterday to investigate and make major improvements, with some saying there needs to be an overhaul of the entire child welfare system.
"There's a management problem at the agencies overseeing ... group homes, and it's just been brought to light, and people are appalled by it," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "We will prioritize providing the oversight and the funds to make these agencies work."
Busch and others were responding to a series of articles in The Sun this week describing the state's failure to adequately safeguard the 2,700 children in privately run group homes.
The newspaper's investigation found that regulators weren't properly monitoring the state-licensed and -funded homes, allowing some to mistreat or neglect children without consequences. Many group homes employ unqualified or poorly trained workers, including some with criminal records. With virtually no oversight of how they spend state funds, a number of operators enrich themselves, relatives and friends.
"The kids in our state are falling through the cracks," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "Overhaul is necessary. You've got to check up on the providers the same way you've got to check up on the kids."
Children in group homes are some of the most vulnerable in Maryland. Many come from broken homes and have been abused. Others have severe medical or behavioral problems.
Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said options include a legislative audit - an investigation of how state programs are performing. The Prince George's County Democrat also said that "we need to have some hearings" on the state Department of Human Resources, which licenses and oversees most group homes in Maryland.
McCabe defends homes
Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe repeated yesterday his belief that most group homes provide quality care and spend appropriately.
"I'm asking my staff to thoroughly review the series in order to correct inaccuracies or gross misleading statements, but also identify ways to strengthen our capacity here in the department," McCabe said.
McCabe said it was too early to say what steps the department might take, and he declined to discuss such specifics as ending the practice of giving group homes notice before some inspections. Nor would McCabe say whether the department would take action against any group home companies described in the series.
The department, he said, is developing plans to decrease reliance on group homes by increasing the number of foster families. "That will help relieve some of the pressure on the group home system," McCabe said.
In a statement yesterday, McCabe acknowledged that there have been regulatory flaws going back years and blamed the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening for failing to act. He said the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has "made significant progress" and he vowed to help "repair a damaged child welfare system."
Neither the governor's office nor the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which licenses 115 group homes, returned calls seeking comment.
Democratic lawmakers said the Ehrlich administration has had more than two years to address the issues.
"You can only pass the buck for so long," said Hollinger.
The Sun's investigation was based on 150 interviews with doctors, social services workers and experts, and an examination of 15,000 pages of child case files, inspection reports and other records obtained under the state Public Information Act. It looked at a sampling of 25 companies that ran 120 group homes across the state for abused, neglected and delinquent youths.
A statewide task force in 2001 and legislative audits over the last four years, including one announced last month, have identified problems similar to those reported in the series.
McCabe said his department's review would look at the task force report prepared under Glendening, which recommended hiring more inspectors and consolidating under a single state agency the scattered licensing and monitoring of group homes.
U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the House subcommittee overseeing foster care, said "fundamental change" was necessary to fix the child welfare system.
"Every state needs to make progress, but Maryland is at the bottom," Cardin said. The state risks losing $1.57 million in federal funding if it doesn't fix within two years deficiencies found by a federal review.
Advocates and lawmakers said years of inaction showed the need for the General Assembly's involvement.
"You're going to see the legislature become much more aggressive in trying to address this problem," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. He said it was too early to say what action lawmakers would take, but it would involve studying the best practices in other states and bringing them to Maryland.
"It is long past time to get off the dime and to start working on these issues," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and former task force member. "The recommendations of the group home task force, which have never been implemented, need to be implemented."
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is active on child welfare issues, said the regulatory mind-set requires alteration.
"You need a culture of accountability," he said. "This money should be going for providing appropriate care, and it shouldn't be going to line the pockets of people running these facilities."
The state spends $157 million a year on group homes, an average of nearly $60,000 a child.
"We will come back next year with legislation," Rosenberg said.
Child advocates said proposed fixes should address the child welfare system generally, not just group homes.
Charlie Cooper, administrator of a state watchdog agency, the Citizens' Review Board for Children, said the state needs to develop a range of services for children beyond foster families and group homes.
Jann K. Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, said, "Our failure with maltreated children is one of the single biggest outrages in Maryland's policy landscape."
"These are the most vulnerable kids," Jackson said. "For them to be neglected at home and then to be systematically neglected at taxpayer expense is unconscionable."