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Baltimore County report on Animal Services recommends communication changes as leadership departs

Baltimore County report on Animal Services recommends communication changes as leadership departs
Baltimore County Animal Services in Baldwin. (Baltimore Sun Media Group file)

A 30-day operational review of Baltimore County Animal Services was released on the same day that the departure of four top Animal Services employees was announced.

The report by the county’s Operational Excellence team is dated March 1, but was released just hours after Wednesday’s announcement that the Animal Services director and three other top employees “will no longer be working” at the department.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. commissioned the report after citizen complaints about the department’s operations.

The report investigated various complaints fielded by the Animal Services Advisory Commission and found that Animal Services needs improvement in key areas related to communication with police, constituents and volunteers.

“This assessment of Baltimore County Animal Services identified a need for improvements, and we are committed to increased transparency and collaboration between Health and Human Services and the Commission in order to ensure those improvements are realized,” Olszewski said in an emailed statement through spokesman T.J. Smith.

Deborah Stone Hess, chairwoman of the Animal Services Advisory Commission, which has leveled criticism against the department, said the commission is “appreciative that the administration clearly approached this in a very comprehensive and systematic way.”

“The report makes it clear that they have not looked at everything,” Hess wrote in an email. “That will take place over time. But in the short term this is all good.”

“I think the report shows that while we have made progress with the improvements at the shelter, there is a need for better protocol and engagement of volunteers,” said Councilman David Marks, who represents the county’s fifth district.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday the Animal Services director, Dr. Melissa Jones, and three top employees, would be leaving their positions at the department “effective immediately” — management analyst Gary Klunk, shelter director Lauren Pavlik, and behavior and enrichment coordinator William Webster.

Smith and health department spokeswoman Stacie Burgess both declined to comment on the reason for those employees’ departure, saying they cannot discuss “personnel issues.”

Dr. Lucia Donatelli, a Health and Human Services bureau director who oversees Animal Services, will be taking over administration of the department in an “interim situation,” Burgess said.

The report reviewed standard operating procedures and staff members were interviewed. It did not observe most practices directly or analyze staff salaries, workloads and organization structure. Some of its findings and recommendations included:

Improving communication

Earlier this year, the Animal Services Advisory Commission accused Animal Services of “manipulating statistics” to make it seem like the number of animals released from the shelter alive was higher than it really was.

They did this, the commission alleged, by encouraging owners surrendering pets that might be difficult to place in new homes to request euthanasia during the intake interview process.

In the Operational Excellence report, investigators said Animal Services told them that was not the policy — instead, staff “made a point to have frank conversations about euthanasia with pet owners surrendering animals with bite histories and behavioral issues that will not be readily adoptable,” they said.

The report says because complaints were made about the intake process, investigators were not able to observe the original process. But the numbers show that something changed, it said.

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According to the report, owner-requested euthanasia rates were comparable to those of seven major counties in the area until summer 2017, when those rates rose above the average. Those numbers align with a Towson Times analysis that found that in the fourth quarter of 2017, owner-requested euthanasia as a percentage of total euthanasia rose by more than 10 percentage points.

“The change to the [owner-requested euthanasia] totals are significant enough that it is likely that only a structural change (such as revising the interview process) could result in that level of difference,” the report said.

The county’s euthanasia practices meet industry standards, the report said.

To improve the intake process, the report recommended Animal Services revise the intake process to ensure there is “no pressure or encouragement from [animal services] staff that the owner request euthanasia.”

It also recommended the department consider creating time between an owner’s initial inquiry and the surrender, for instance by requiring owners to make appointments. That would give owners time to receive information about alternatives and resources, the report said.

The report also aired the idea of recording surrender interviews to ensure employee accountability but cautioned that it might make owners reluctant to be “completely honest” about their animals.

Streamline the relationship with the Animal Abuse Unit

After a dog named Oscar died in Arbutus in early 2018 after he was allegedly left outside overnight, Baltimore County took steps to change the way it handles animal abuse cases.

The county created a police department unit with one sergeant, one police officer and three civilian investigators dedicated to investigating animal abuse cases.

The report found that there is an “unclear delineation of responsibility” between Animal Services and the police, causing miscommunication and delays in Animal Services receiving abuse reports.

The report recommended the county clarify those roles and formalize officer training in how to respond to animal abuse cases.

According to the Operational Excellence report, that unit was created by transferring three Animal Services officer positions to the police department.

The report suggested that if training county patrol officers in how to recognize animal abuse cases is not feasible, that initial response should be handed back to Animal Services, which could require transferring those three positions back to the animal department.

Create a more formalized feedback system

The Operational Excellence report used complaints fielded through the Advisory Commission as a starting point for many of their inquiries. But the report also said the way those complaints are communicated could be improved.

“Over time, there has been an erosion of trust and communication between BCAS and the Animal Services Commission,” the report said. “Repairing that relationship will require a more formalized and constructive feedback processes between the two organizations.”

The report suggested the commission provide structured feedback with recommended solutions as well as an indication of whether the complaint is systemic or isolated, to “help BCAS identify if there is an issue where a policy is not achieving its intended goal or if a policy was simply not being followed properly.”

Animal Services’ response to that feedback should then be tracked, ideally in a dedicated IT system, the report said.

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