State prosecutors investigating whether ex-Baltimore Social Services chief properly placed foster babies

State prosecutors are investigating former Baltimore Social Services chief Molly McGrath Tierney after auditors questioned nearly $2 million she directed to a contractor and local nonprofit.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation say prosecutors are also reviewing whether Tierney followed proper procedures in placing two foster babies with the CEO of the nonprofit in 2016.

Tierney built a national reputation as a passionate advocate for disadvantaged children during her nine years directing the Baltimore Department of Social Services. She resigned in August 2017, without public explanation.

This summer, state auditors published a report questioning some of the $7 million in public funds she awarded to the nonprofit Family League of Baltimore during her final three years on the job.

In one instance, she awarded $500,000 to the nonprofit to renovate a shuttered Park Heights school, even though the project had been suspended, the auditors wrote. That money has been returned.

In another instance, she received $22,100 worth of computer tablets bought by a contractor with state money, according to the Office of Legislative Audits report. Tierney gave some of the engraved tablets as “gifts for personal use,” the auditors wrote.

The financial audit made no mention of the two foster babies Tierney placed with the former CEO of the Family League. But sources with knowledge of the investigation say prosecutors are reviewing the placements.

Both children were placed with Jonathon Rondeau, former CEO of the Family League, and his husband, Matthew Rondeau, though one child was ultimately adopted by another couple.

Jonathon Rondeau resigned from the Family League one month before Tierney stepped down from Social Services. He now works in Annapolis as CEO of The Arc Central Chesapeake Region, a nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities. Rondeau and his husband declined to comment for this article.

Tierney’s attorney, Charles Curlett Jr., said his client followed all rules and regulations in handling the contracts and other payments and the adoption placements.

“As the report acknowledges, all funds have been accounted for and none were used for any unauthorized purpose,” he wrote in an email.

Curlett said he and Tierney did not know the adoption cases were under review. He pointed out that the courts approve all adoptions.

“We have not received any information that the Office of the State Prosecutor is investigating this matter,” he wrote. “We are confident, however, that should it do so, no further action would be warranted.”

Curlett said Tierney would not be available for questions.

The Baltimore Department of Social Services is a state agency whose director is jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor. State and city officials answered the audit with a letter saying they do not dispute facts in the report. They are conducting their own review.

The auditors sent their report to the Office of the State Prosecutor to investigate possible criminal charges, and sources familiar with the investigation say it is ongoing. The referral does not mean criminal charges will be filed.

State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt declined to comment.

Auditors found no wrongdoing by staff of the Family League, said Demaune Millard, the nonprofit’s current CEO. He replied to questions through a public relations firm.

Millard said the group cooperated with the auditors, understands the gravity of the findings, and has begun revising its practices. Officials have already reviewed their procurement practices and developed safeguards to identity conflicts of interest, he said.

“Family League will continue to be responsive to the appropriate authorities during this investigation,” he said.

The Baltimore Department of Social Services investigates reports of child abuse and manages a range of child welfare and family support programs, from foster care placements to Temporary Cash Assistance and food stamps. For more than a decade, it has partnered with the Family League, a nonprofit in Old Goucher that runs programs and administers grants to support city families.

Tierney previously served on the Family League board of directors.

Auditors wrote that Tierney funneled $1.3 million through the nonprofit to pay an out-of-state contractor with whom she had previously worked. The audit did not name or provide information about the contractor. The money was supposed to help the parents of children in foster care by providing services such as drug and alcohol counseling.

Instead, the auditors’ report found that the contractor performed administrative tasks such as analyzing vacancies in the Social Services Department and updating the agency’s email and phone lists. The person billed the Family League, which in turn billed the Social Services Department, auditors wrote.

The auditors noted the arrangement bypassed state laws that require bidding of contracts greater than $25,000.

“Because the State Prosecutor's investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment as to the out-of-state vendor,” said Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Services.

The contractor was paid $105 an hour and up to $20,000 a year for hotel and travel expenses, auditors wrote. Meanwhile, no one was ensuring that the money was well spent or the work was actually performed, they wrote. Auditors found the work could have been done in-house.

The auditors also referred the matter to the State Ethics Commission.

The Family League has cut ties with the contractor, the audit said.

In the adoptions matter, complaints were made to the Baltimore inspector general almost two years ago after two newborns were placed with the Rondeaus in August and October 2016. The Baltimore Sun obtained the confidential complaints, which allege that Tierney gave preference to her friend in placing the foster babies.

When asked about the complaints, Jonathon Rondeau discussed the cases with The Sun in December 2016. He and his husband spent months undergoing the routine approval process to become adoptive parents, Rondeau said. They waited more than a year for their chance to adopt.

In both cases, he said, Tierney called him after the babies were born.

“I feel like there’s an unfair perception of my position and Molly’s position, that we knew each other and work together,” Rondeau said in 2016. “I don’t think that I got any special treatment in the placement of the children.”

Foster cases are cloaked in confidentiality. The system protects the identities of children and parents. The birth mother of the second child could not be reached. The boy remains with the Rondeaus.

But the family of the other child — his birth parents, adoptive parents, and their attorney — discussed his case with The Sun.

During an interview last year, Stacy Martinez, his birth mother, said she struggled with drug addiction. Recent attempts to reach her were not successful.

When she gave birth, her son showed traces of the drugs, Martinez said. Upset with nurses and doctors, she left Johns Hopkins Hospital the next day, records show. The baby’s aunt, Sarah Sweeney, of Virginia, says she was calling the hospital to take custody of the child.

But Jonathon Rondeau said he had received a phone call from Tierney about the baby left at the hospital; Social Services records two days after the birth name the Rondeaus as the proposed adoptive parents.

The boy went home from the hospital to the Rondeaus. Sarah Sweeney and her husband went to court, and four months later they received custody of their nephew, naming him Levi.

Their attorney, Harvey Schweitzer, says Levi had been wrongly declared abandoned under Maryland’s Safe Haven Act. The law protects mothers who give up a newborn from penalty. It was intended to prevent grim, but rare cases in which a mother abandons a baby on the roadside.

But the act can be misapplied, Schweitzer says, with officials whisking away babies into handpicked adoptive homes.

“This is really about the Safe Haven Act,” he said. “As we know now, it can be misused.”

Tierney went on to support the Sweeneys’ efforts to gain custody, according to an email obtained by The Sun. In the email, from Tierney to the executive director of the Maryland Social Services Administration, Tierney wrote of working to remove bureaucratic hurdles and hasten the baby’s placement with the Sweeneys.

The child “came to us as what we imagined was a safe haven baby,” Tierney wrote. “With that understanding we proceeded to place him in a pre-adoptive home. In a turn of events we could not have imagined, the parents re-appeared in court with a relative. … I am eager to complete this transaction. As you can imagine this will be heartbreaking for the pre-adoptive family who have already conceived of this child as their son.”

Tierney’s attorney said she could not discuss the confidential case.

“At all times BCDSS [Baltimore City Department of Social Services] followed all applicable laws to ensure placements that are in the best interests of the child,” Curlett wrote in the email.

Tierney has been widely praised as a reformer of the foster care system, advocating for early intervention to help struggling parents raise their own children.

Curlett says the number of city children in foster care declined 71 percent during her tenure.

Some who worked for her — and who requested anonymity for fear of retribution — say Tierney ran the department with an iron hand, flouting procedure and punishing those who questioned her. Tattooed on her knuckles are the words “fear less.”

Tierney drew criticism in 2013 after a Sun investigation found she was sending youths to a private academy in Philadelphia where they earned a high school diploma after a three-hour exam. Colleges rejected the diplomas. An accrediting body concluded that the academy was a “diploma mill.”

One year later, Tierney gave a rousing speech about foster care reform at the TED Talks speaker series in Baltimore.

“I was a believer in fixing things,” she said, “and I came to Baltimore. That was back when the agency that I run now was considered the worst in the country, but I just knew we could make it work — and we have had a good run.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°