The situation could be improved if more resources, such as food vouchers or budget planning, were available to parents after they have been reunified with their children, Little said. "You've got parents who are truly struggling."

Little said the Baltimore City Family Recovery Program is an example of the type of investment that works. She said the program should be expanded.

The Family Recovery Program, founded in 2005, helps parents with drug and alcohol addictions regain custody of their children. It combines case management, referrals for substance abuse treatment and judicial oversight, said Jocelyn Gainers, the organization's director. Those enrolled have access to mental health counselors and group therapy, among other resources.

The program is funded primarily by the Human Resources Department through an "opportunity compact" that provides money based on the organization's ability to lessen the time children stay in foster care, Gainers said. A program in San Diego provided the model.

Research commissioned by the organization shows that parents in the program were reunited with their children 70 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent for other families. The study was conducted by Oregon-based NPC Research using data from August 2005 to December 2006.

Children of parents in the program spent 252 days in foster care, 94 days fewer than non-participating families, the study found. The result was a savings of more than $1 million for the city, or $5,022 per family.

Gainers attributes her program's success to the family atmosphere in the office, where food and movies are available for clients who, she said, are loved and held to high expectations.

But the state makes the final decision on whether to reunite parents and children, she said. Reunification isn't always the best option.

"We give parents the tools to be clean and sober and meet all of the qualifications [the Department of Social Services] wants, " Gainers said. "We want children in permanent families. We would love for them to be with their parents, but not all parents are ready for their children, and sometimes they have to go to another forever family so they can flourish."

For Lasondra Shields-Morton it worked. The 37-year-old said being reunited with her daughter, Davione, after completing the Family Recovery Program was the greatest achievement of her life.

Shields-Morton, of Edmondson Village, was referred to the program by the court when she lost custody of Davione, who tested positive for drugs when she was born. Shields-Morton said she tried Narcotics Anonymous occasionally, but the program never worked for her.

"I never thought after getting high for 19 years I would accomplish anything," Shields-Morton said. She plans to celebrate four years of being clean on Jan. 16, and ticks off all the ways she's reinvented herself in recent years. She is raising her five children, ages 1 to 19, got married in September and works at the Family Recovery Program as a peer recovery advocate.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said the state needs to continue to build on its success, because children who live in a family setting tend to be more successful in life, including performing better in schools. Brown is also an adoptive father. His son, Jonathan, joined the family 12 years ago.

"I am really pleased with the gains that we've made," Brown said. "I am pleased with the number of children who are now placed in loving and supportive foster homes, and fewer and fewer are in institutional settings. That is certainly no reason to let up.

"We still have hundreds of children in Maryland who are ready to be adopted, and it's a matter of finding the family that's willing to open their homes."

Children in foster care

(Start of fiscal year 2012/End of year)

•Anne Arundel County: 151/158

•Baltimore: 4,005/3,276

Baltimore County: 578/604

Carroll County: 41/43

Harford County: 257/247

Howard County: 66/62

Source: Maryland Department of Human Resources