Maryland board approves $1.4 million for lawyers in foster care lawsuit

Lawyers who fought Maryland in foster care case filed in 1984 will receive $1.4 million.

Lawyers who fought Maryland on a lawsuit over foster care filed when Ronald Reagan was president will receive $1.4 million for their services under a recently concluded settlement.

The settlement was approved by the Board of Public Works Wednesday. The board — made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer — gets the final say on the state's legal settlements.

Such agreements are routine items on the board agenda. But board members seldom see one with a price tag this high.

Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who has been involved in the case since 1988, says the state's getting a great deal.

"We're settling for 20 cents on the dollar for the services of the lawyers," said Mirviss, a partner at Venable LLP. He's been involved in the case since 1988 and his firm since 1990.

Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, confirmed that the settlement involves attorney fees and not the substantive issues in the case.

The case known as L.J. et al vs. Massinga et al was filed in December 1984 in Maryland's U.S. District Court. It was brought by private lawyers working pro bono and the Public Justice Center on behalf of children placed in foster care in Baltimore.

The case still bears the name of lead defendant Ruth W. Massinga, who was secretary of human resources from 1983 to 1989.

The litigation charged that the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, an arm of the human resources department, failed to offer protection and services to children in need of foster care. The plaintiffs sought an injunction ordering the department to make improvements.

The court ruled in April 1987 that the state was not providing enough foster homes to meet the needs in Baltimore. It also found that the state failed to remove children from abusive or neglectful homes, that licenses were granted to foster parents who couldn't care for children and that foster children were given inadequate medical care, among other deficiencies.

Social services officials were instructed by the injunction to take a series of steps to improve foster care. The agency was told to visit every child in a Baltimore foster home monthly — weekly in cases where there were reports of maltreatment — and to offer every child appropriate medical care.

The state took the case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost in 1988.

That year, the plaintiffs and the state entered into a consent decree under which agency officials were required to make a series of improvements.

That set off years of wrangling over whether the state was complying with the decree. In 1997 the plaintiffs' lawyers told the court they wanted it to hold the state in contempt of court for not complying.

That set up a new round of negotiations that led to another decree with tougher provisions including monitoring of the agency by an independent agent.

The state made one more abortive attempt to get out from under the original decree but was slapped down by the appeals courts in 2011. But in 2012, with monitoring reports flowing in on a monthly basis, the plaintiffs dropped their motion for contempt.

Mirviss said the settlement involves 91/2 years of legal work by Venable, the Public Justice Center and the Washington firm of WilmerHale, which will share in the proceeds. He said Venable alone spent $600,000 on the case for which it was not reimbursed.

The state could have avoided paying any legal fees, Mirviss said. He said the plaintiffs' lawyers offered to forgo compensation if the state refrained from taking an appeal to the Supreme Court. He said the state spurned the offer and went to the high court, where the justices refused to put it on their docket.

Mirviss said the lengthy litigation and continuing consent decree have produced positive results for children needing foster care.

"We've made significant headway in the last 10 years but there's more work to do," he said.

The department's Morris agreed that conditions are better.

"We've seen progress under the decree with regards to improvements in foster youth health services, access to education and the speed with which youth in DHR's care are placed into a permanent living arrangement," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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