Legislators favor single agency to oversee Md. group homes

Oversight of privately run group homes for Maryland's troubled children, a responsibility now divided among several state agencies, should be consolidated, a growing number of lawmakers say.

"We have to move everything into a single agency," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which is to hold the first of three hearings on the topic today.

Three departments - Human Resources, Health & Mental Hygiene, and Juvenile Services - license and monitor their own sets of group homes. A fourth, housed in the State Department of Education, determines how much the facilities are paid by the agencies.

Advocates have long complained that the diffusion of responsibilities has contributed to lax oversight of the homes for abandoned, abused, delinquent and medically fragile children. In 2001, a gubernatorial task force recommended merging licensing and monitoring under the Health Department.

State senators say they are discussing that recommendation among themselves and with officials in the Ehrlich administration.

"A lot of people, including in the Ehrlich administration, have a single agency to license and monitor in mind," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who served on the task force. She plans to attend today's hearing representing the Finance Committee.

The Sun documented that regulators were not properly monitoring the state-funded homes. Children were being mistreated or neglected at some homes without consequences. Many homes employed unqualified or poorly trained staff, including some with criminal records. Meanwhile, several operators enriched themselves, family and friends.

"There really needs to be some better oversight," said Susan Burger, director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Baltimore, which assigns volunteers to represent foster children in the Juvenile Court system. "It's pretty easy to open up a group home and staff it."

As it has since the newspaper investigation, the Ehrlich administration directed questions to the Department of Human Resources. Secretary Christopher J. McCabe declined through a spokesman to comment, saying he wanted to save his remarks for today's hearing.

McCabe has said he hopes to decrease reliance on group homes by recruiting more foster families.

He also has defended the work of the licensing and monitoring unit, which did not know, among other things, that one group home company had ties to one of the nation's largest drug paraphernalia rings.

"Rather than disparage the work that they do, it would be more appropriate for the public to applaud their dedication and expertise," the department's May newsletter said.

Besides this afternoon's session, the Budget and Taxation Committee has scheduled hearings July 26 and Sept. 20. The Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families is to hold a hearing June 21.

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Democrat from Montgomery County and chairman of the joint committee, said it would review the task force proposal to combine licensing and monitoring in a single agency.

"It's clear that we've got a huge problem with group homes," he said.

Budget and Taxation Committee members, concerned about the $157 million the state spends each year on the 330 homes, have taken the lead on group home reform.

"We've read the articles about employees going on cruises and driving expensive cars - that raises a big old red flag," said Sen. Rona E. Kramer, a Democrat from Montgomery County on the committee. "We must take a look at how the money is being spent and are the services being provided."

Committee members said they were interested in learning through the hearings about the vetting of applicants interested in opening the homes, and the frequency and nature of inspections of the homes.

"What's going on with the management of these homes?" said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chairman of the committee. "And what needs to be done to fix them?"

While cautioning that they needed to learn more about state regulation of the homes, the members expressed support for making changes.

"Accountability and the efficient use of public resources are very important to me, and I'm not sure there is a system in place to do that," said Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat serving on the committee.

Lawmakers also said they would like to see funding for the homes linked to progress made by the children who live in them.

Whatever the specific goals, senators said they hope the hearings will prompt Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to take action.

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