BOONSBORO - She points proudly to a new report card marked with A's and B's and talks about a future career in law enforcement. Then she acknowledges that she'd be a high school dropout abusing drugs if she hadn't been sent five months earlier to the San Mar Children's Home here.
"This is like my second home," the 18-year-old said, after closing her copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to give an impromptu tour last month of San Mar, one of Maryland's most highly regarded group homes for foster children and delinquents.
The girl, whom the state Department of Juvenile Services sent to San Mar, said she'd recommend the place to any struggling youth. Her view is shared by industry leaders and child welfare officials who are eager to put their young charges there.
San Mar, they say, embodies the life-changing potential that good group homes in Maryland offer to abused, neglected and lawbreaking youths. It develops programs to meet the particular needs of each resident. It follows national standards. Its board of directors truly keeps watch. And in keeping with its nonprofit purpose, only three of its 65 employees make more than $50,000 a year - the highest $81,356.
"There are an awful lot of good programs around the state, and this is one of the best," said Jim McComb, who leads an industry trade group, the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.
Other top-notch homes, experts such as McComb say, include Aunt Hattie's Place in Baltimore, Board of Child Care in Randallstown and KHI Services in Germantown.
While exemplary homes do not receive more state funding or pay counselors more than others, they manage to provide additional services to youths, keep highly skilled staff longer and raise extra money for programs. San Mar also works with one of Maryland's most-difficult and underserved populations - teenage girls who were alcoholics, truants or runaways, or whose parents abandoned or abused them.
"I can't change another person, but I can create an environment in which they want to change," said Bruce T. Anderson, the executive director.
San Mar was originally known as the Washington County Orphan's Home, begun in 1883 by private benefactors concerned about the welfare of poor and parentless boys and girls. Today, the tax-exempt organization serves 40 girls from around the state. They live in contemporary ranch houses and an old red-brick building on a 60-acre campus.
Especially troubled residents receive daily therapy with a licensed social worker and periodic visits with a psychiatrist. Those behaving poorly in the public schools receive tutoring at San Mar until they can return. Older girls live in a transitional house to learn about living independently.
Everyone learns such life skills as how to cook, manage a bank account, apply for a job and use the Internet. Residents are rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad. They must cook, clean or do other daily chores, according to schedules that govern the girls' days from waking to bedtime.
A registered nurse sees to the girls' medical needs, while a liaison to the public schools monitors their education and obtains any extra services they need. Counselors watch them around the clock, aided by surveillance cameras.
"They had staff interacting with you all the time, and you didn't have time to get in trouble," recalled a former resident, who is now 18 and planning to go to college. Like others interviewed for this article, she cannot be named because of confidentiality reasons.
Maryland's Department of Human Resources licenses San Mar's group home and transitional house. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene licenses its therapeutic group home, and the state Department of Education licenses the campus school.
In 2002, San Mar was accredited by a national, independent firm, the Council on Accreditation. Group home officials say the two-year process required them to conform to national standards on spending, quality of services and staff credentials, hire a quality assurance specialist to monitor performance, and strengthen oversight of the board of directors.
The 15-member board holds monthly committee meetings, its members regularly interview residents and it insists on hiring quality staff.
"We're not just looking for warm bodies," said Robert May II, a former deputy sheriff and board member. "If you handle a situation wrongly, things can go south really quickly, so you have to have staff, especially senior staff, who know what they're doing."
San Mar employees go through several interviews and background checks. More than half have worked there for more than five years.
The company holds management costs to less than 20 percent of the $2.5 million it receives each year in state funding, a better ratio than many group home businesses achieve. And it raises private money to augment what the government pays.
"If the state doesn't pay it, then we need to do what it takes to do it," Anderson said.
The payoff comes when girls leave the home better equipped for life.
"Since I came here, I don't have outbursts anymore," said a 16-year-old placed by the Washington County Department of Social Services.
And she has a dream now.
"I want to make Disney movies," she said. "If I try hard enough, I think I can."
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