Department of Human Resources Secretary Ted Dallas (left) and health secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein

Department of Human Resources Secretary Ted Dallas (left) and health secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein at a legislative briefing. (Doug Donovan / Baltimore Sun / July 24, 2014)

Some foster children were placed in the care of relatives with a history of alleged abuse or neglect because Maryland's social services agency did not properly monitor local agencies, according to a new audit.

State auditors found that 16 children, ranging in age from 2 months to nearly 5 years old, were put in the care of relatives despite "credible evidence of abuse or neglect" by them before or during the placements. The Office of Legislative Audits, which released the report this week, reviewed records from July 2010 to January 2013.

"We need to do better. The bottom line is, these placements need to be safe," said Melissa Rock, child welfare director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit advocacy group. "When a child is abused or neglected in a DHR placement — be it a group home, a foster home, a kinship care home — we need accountability and there needs to be more public awareness to help hold everyone accountable."

This is not the first time auditors have cited the foster care agency, overseen by the state Department of Human Resources, for failing to properly monitor such placements. A 2011 audit found the same problem.

Department officials responded then by saying they would implement a quarterly monitoring process to make sure local agencies were not placing children in danger. But that process wasn't performed during this audit period, the report said.

The audit comes after a recent investigation by The Baltimore Sun revealed that state officials were unaware of reports of abuse and neglect made to Anne Arundel County police on behalf of foster children living at a Laurel-area group home operated by LifeLine Inc.

The state moved the children after it determined that a child there was receiving inadequate health care. A 10-year-old, Damaud Martin, died a day before the last of the children was removed. The state is investigating his death and whether inadequate care contributed to it, but officials have cautioned against drawing conclusions prematurely.

The state continued to contract with LifeLine for the care of children even after it cited the company for inadequate care in three adult deaths in 2010 and 2011, and it shut down the adult facility.

State and local government agencies jointly spend about $200 million to provide "out-of-home" placements for nearly 5,619 abused or neglected foster children either in group homes, foster care or with relatives, called "kinship" care.

Placements with relatives with a history of alleged abuse or neglect are rare. State law prohibits placements with such relatives except when state officials provide evidence that there is no continuing risk.

According to the recent audit of the social services agency, one relative who was known to have a history of physical abuse was allowed to care for a foster child for 41/2 months.

In response to each audit, state officials said that no children had been harmed and that their placements were safe. The issue, they say, is that the Department of Human Resources did not maintain proper documents proving that children were not in danger.

"In these very rare cases, the child is represented by an independent attorney, and each case is reviewed, approved and monitored by a judge," department spokesman Brian Schleter said Tuesday in an email.

"To provide some context, a common example is a grandmother who has a relatively minor finding of neglect ... who the court and other parties involved believe is the most appropriate placement for her grandchild," he added. One example, he suggested, would be a decades-old finding of lack of supervision for a child.

Regarding the kinship care placements cited by the audit, state officials said they knew of reports of abuse and neglect with the relatives but followed proper procedure.

Maryland's secretary of human resources, Ted Dallas, disagreed with the audit in an official written response, stating that local agencies and judges relied on documented evidence that the placements were safe.

"Safety assessments completed for each child indicated that there were no safety or risk issues relating to the placement with the kinship provider," the response stated. "At no time were any of the children harmed or placed at risk of harm by their placement with their relative."

The department added that local agencies reviewed the histories of relatives and provided information to judges before children were placed with them.

But Thomas Barnickel III, the state's legislative auditor, said Dallas' department never handed over the documentation to auditors despite being given "several months" to do so.

"Maybe all these placements were appropriate, but they never provided the documentation," Barnickel said.

Shelley Tinney, executive director for the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Children, said the state was exhibiting a "double standard" by allowing placements with relatives with a history of abuse allegations while the group homes she represents would be "absolutely excluded" from caring for children if any of its employees had certain criminal histories.

"It's different when it's family somehow," Tinney said. "The philosophy is, if the child is not able to return to their biological parents, the next best option is kin — regardless of how far removed they may be or what the nature of the relationship may have been prior to the need for a placement."

She said private group homes could never get paid without documentation, yet the state is allowed to make questionable placements without having to provide evidence that no risk exists.

"The department says it's just a documentation issue," she said. "In our world, if it's not documented, it doesn't happen."

The audit also faulted the department for not seeking more reimbursement from the federal government for providing care to disabled foster children. Those children are eligible for both federal foster care money as well as supplemental funds from Social Security.

The state says it prefers reimbursement under Social Security because the children are eligible for the funds after they become adults, unlike the federal foster care money. If children lose their Social Security eligibility because their care was reimbursed from both sources, state officials say, it would be to their "detriment to exit foster care and wait for reinstatement of SSI benefits."

ddonovan@baltsun.com