Children of Life employed two key figures in one of the nation's largest drug paraphernalia rings. The women cooked and cared for youths at group homes in Harford County even after being convicted. They kept working there until their sentencing nine months later.
A ringleader of the paraphernalia distribution scheme also had ties. He helped incorporate Children of Life and for a while lent it office space and organized its payroll. Sometimes, he gave the kids candy.
State officials who licensed, funded and inspected Children of Life said they didn't know about the drug connections. "We'll have to check into that," Craig G. Adams, a top regulator, said after The Sun informed him last fall.
In fact, for years regulators seemed to know little about the people working at Children of Life, including the woman in charge. Senora Marshall, though not implicated in the drug scheme, was unqualified to run a group home. Under state rules, she should never have been entrusted with the foster children who eventually had to be removed from her care.
At many group homes, employees don't meet state standards for qualifications and training, an investigation by The Sun found. The Department of Human Resources, which oversees most of the state's privately run homes, often does not enforce its staffing rules and never does its own background checks.
People who have no experience, little education or criminal records readily find work in a field where low pay fuels high turnover. Ill-prepared when they arrive, many employees receive little or no training.
Scant qualifications and inadequate training often result in poor care. That's what happened at Children of Life, which took in kids from 1998 to 2004 without regulators detecting the drug ties and Marshall's lack of qualifications. It wasn't until after social services workers had complained and The Sun made inquiries that the state moved to close the homes.
Problems "border on neglect," the assistant director for services at Harford County's Department of Social Services wrote last year to the Department of Human Resources. Children went to bed without dinner, failed to get their medications, hit younger residents and were supervised by staff high on marijuana, if there was any staff around at all, county social services workers complained. Their letters and e-mails going back to 2003 were obtained by the newspaper from state files.
Experts stress the need for skilled workers because they're responsible for feeding, medicating and guiding children with complex needs. Children sent to group homes include teenage drug dealers needing tough love, the medically fragile requiring constant assistance, the emotionally disturbed who are prescribed a number of medications, and victims of neglect who have not known a stable, let alone loving, relationship.
"They're really some of the most troubled kids in our state, and we're putting some of the least-experienced people with them, and it doesn't make sense," said Edward T. Kilcullen Jr., a former group home worker who is state director of the Maryland Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, which assigns volunteers to represent foster children in the Juvenile Court system.
The Department of Human Resources doesn't adequately enforce rules or rigorously inspect group homes. Good and bad group homes are paid the same rates, and some company executives take advantage of the system to enrich themselves, friends and relatives.
State officials say they believe most administrators and staff meet the personnel requirements. They point out that new regulations would have prohibited hiring of people like those in the drug business working at Children of Life. That company, they add, is no longer caring for children.
Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe played down The Sun's examples as isolated cases. He said his agency is now checking the credentials of group home administrators during inspections and double-checking to ensure that counselors receive their required 40 hours of annual training.
But given limited resources, he said, inspectors can't vet the qualifications of all employees.
"It's really up to the operator," he said.
Gabriel was a counselor at a Pikesville home where five boys with behavioral problems lived, state records show. Children assigned to him ran amok, stealing a company van three times in a single month. And Gabriel sometimes assaulted them, slapping, grabbing, choking, hitting and shoving them, children told state inspectors.
In a 2003 decision upholding the Department of Human Resources' decision to revoke Sunrising's license, administrative law judge Neile S. Friedman concluded, "Returning children to Sunrising would place them at serious risk."
He was hired as a "community living assistant," taking care of children, according to company reports filed with the state. A secretary who works at the company said Jackson no longer works there; he could not be reached for comment.
JoAnne W. Elliott, Place for Children's executive director, refused to comment to The Sun. But in a letter to the DHR responding to written questions from the newspaper, she said the company checks the criminal backgrounds of all employees before hiring and periodically afterward. And she said it immediately fires anyone it learns has a record.
Saxena referred all questions to Evershine. Asked to explain Saxena's qualifications for the job, Joseph Skariah, Evershine's director, said: "Hospitality business."
The Department of Human Resources granted Frost a waiver, she said. When the health department assumed licensing responsibility and raised objections, her husband became the director because he has the credentials. But Frost and other employees say she still runs the company. "Sometimes she micromanages," said Hugh Pendley, the comptroller. "This was her thing. It is still her thing."
Frost's husband, Joseph F. Labule, pleaded guilty in 1998 to a charge of stealing $25,000 in workers' compensation payments. Labule claimed a bad back to collect disability payments from his employer while working two other jobs, according to court records. Later, he fell behind on making restitution.
State rules don't disqualify people convicted of theft or fraud from serving as administrators.
Ganesan said he is qualified to run his National Residential Services Inc. group home. But he had not worked extensively in the human services field as a supervisor or administrator, or otherwise met Maryland's requirements.
When he was applying for a license regulators didn't question his background or the "extensive" health care management experience he described, inspection records show.
Proud of his Beltsville group home, Ganesan took reporters there one day last fall. Three of the six residents were milling around, although it was a school day. Among them, he said, were a 12-year-old not yet enrolled in school and a 20-year-old. The home is licensed for children from 14 to 18 years old.
"You're probably going to make more money working at Burger King," said Lisa Phillips, who made $8 an hour working at Evershine homes in Woodlawn from 2000 to 2002.
The average salary for a counselor was $21,004 for those with a high school diploma, $26,349 for those with a bachelor's degree, according to a 2002 survey by the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, a trade group. Almost half left within a year.
The well-regarded TuTTie's Place group home in Baltimore pays new hires $10 an hour. But that's not enough to recruit highly qualified candidates. Many applicants have criminal records, and program director Brenda Boyd said she has had to hire some with convictions for drug possession and distribution.
Four counselors with records were working in TuTTie's Place's four group homes early this year, and Boyd said they did good work. But the company decided late last year to stop hiring applicants with criminal histories, she said, after some other employees with records cheated on time sheets, allowed children to break house rules and stole money from the residents.
Some employees work at group homes to give cover to their drug dealing, Boyd said. They don't need the meager income, given the sums they make selling drugs. But they need the employment to show a legitimate source for their money.
"We have had - not knowing it at that time - people coming to these jobs because it is a way to show you're earning a paycheck," she said. "They don't cash their checks."
Until this year, state regulations had barred only those convicted of child abuse or neglect from working. Now, those convicted of any crime against a child are barred, along with murderers, spouse batterers, rapists and recent drug offenders.
The state tightened restrictions four years after a 2001 gubernatorial task force recommended changes. Still, applicants convicted of first-degree assault and other serious crimes can get hired. And oversight hasn't been strengthened, critics say, so requirements aren't likely to be enforced.
Auditors assigned to the General Assembly reported last month that the Department of Human Resources licenses group homes even when company files lack criminal background checks and other records.
As far as worker qualifications, Maryland's requirements are similar to those of a number of other states. But the Child Welfare League of America and some states set higher standards.
Under Maryland rules, administrators must have a master's degree in any field and a year of management experience, or a bachelor's degree and three years' experience in human services, including at least two as a manager.
Alfred M. Sibedwo didn't meet state requirements five years ago when he started his group home company, CIS&H Inc. in Prince George's County. "I had a lot of learning curve," said Sibedwo, who had degrees in accounting and computer science, and nine years of working in software design. He said he hired a social worker until he gained human-services experience.
Maryland leaves it to group homes to make sure that employees and administrators have required education, experience and training.
In general, counselors must be 21 and have a high school degree. They're not required to receive training before they start, but they must undergo 40 hours of training each year they work. Topics include first aid, administering medications, the needs of children, suicide assessment and prevention, and behavior management.
But in many instances, group homes fail to provide training. Dr. Joseph Berk, an Owings Mills pediatrician who treats youths living in group homes, said he spends hours informally teaching group home counselors the basics of medical care, such as responding to accidents, treating colds and recognizing abuse.
"Generally, the caretakers are not well trained," Berk said. "They are always sort of winging it."
In its review of records, The Sun found that group homes can stay in business even when inspectors find persistent training gaps. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees a smaller number of children's group homes than the DHR, found repeat violations at three companies in recent years. Yet in each case, the department relicensed the firm between inspections.
Positive Image Services Inc. employees in Baltimore and Middle River lacked documentation of training in first aid, CPR and other areas during inspections in October 2002 and September 2003, health department records show.
Staff members at a group home in Beltsville owned by Family Solutions, Inc., hadn't been schooled on handling seizures, even though one child had a history of seizures, health department inspectors found in January 2003. The inspectors found a general lack of staff training during that visit and one a year later.
When inspectors visited Towson-based REM Maryland Inc. in January 2000, they found that seven of 11 employees didn't have current CPR or first aid certification. In October, inspectors also reported a lack of training. The companies pledged to give staff members the training, if they weren't already receiving it.
Children's advocates say it's critical to have well-trained counselors.
"The more tools you have to solve a problem - whether you're sitting at a computer or working on your car or dealing with a child who is breaking down - the less likely you're to get at wits' end and think the only way to get at this is to overpower it," said Richard P. Barth, a University of North Carolina professor who is an authority on group home care. "Experienced staff have considerable ways to reach kids."
Ronald Marshall, who is now serving 20 years in federal prison after conviction as a drug kingpin, helped incorporate Children of Life in 1995. He lent it space on South Parke Street in Aberdeen, where, court records indicate, the wholesale side of the drug paraphernalia operation was based.
"In reality, it was his place. He let us ... come in," said Senora Marshall, 43, who was his wife and the executive director of Children of Life.
He was a leader in an international scheme that imported mannitol, a compound used to dilute heroin for street sale, and sold it to drug dealers along with glass vials, gelatin capsules and other paraphernalia.
In three years, the ring imported enough mannitol to produce $500 million worth of street sales, investigators estimated in court documents. It was the nation's largest known importer and supplier of mannitol for non-industrial purposes, prosecutors said.
Although not on the group home payroll, Ronald Marshall "did a lot" for the firm, preparing paperwork, doing payroll and performing maintenance, said Senora Marshall. And when the children stopped by the office, she said, he gave them candy.
She said she knew from group home employees that Ronald Marshall mailed boxes of drug paraphernalia from South Parke Street. And, after Children of Life moved its offices to Philadelphia Road in Aberdeen in 1998, she said, he sometimes worked there but insisted that he was no longer supplying paraphernalia.
"I would ask the statement, 'Whatever you're doing, I hope it's legal,'" Senora Marshall said in an interview. "I kept asking, 'Is it legal?'"
Two of Ronald Marshall's associates in the drug ring, Rachelle Anderson and her mother, Wilhelmina, were both working at the group homes by 1999. They weren't just employees. Senora Marshall is Wilhelmina Anderson's daughter and Rachelle Anderson's sister.
Both had gotten into trouble with the law in 1997. In separate raids, police seized handguns, vials for packaging drugs and other drug-related paraphernalia from a fragrance store run by Rachelle Anderson and a convenience store operated by Wilhelmina Anderson.
The next year, both pleaded guilty to drug-related charges in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Neither served any time in prison on those charges.
In December 2000, the Andersons, Ronald Marshall and other defendants were convicted of federal drug charges arising from the same paraphernalia scheme. The women continued working at Children of Life until each was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 2001.
Despite the convictions, Senora Marshall said she kept employing her mother and sister because she believed they were innocent. She didn't see how the pair could have worked at Children of Life and participated in a drug ring at the same time.
"My mom and my sister - I felt like they got a raw deal, a very raw deal," she said.
The Andersons' federal drug cases were well publicized, and a cursory check of court records would have revealed the state and federal convictions. But Department of Human Resources officials said they didn't know of them until informed by The Sun during an interview last October.
Although Maryland rules at the time did not bar people convicted of drug offenses from working for group homes, officials said they would have intervened had they known.
The regulators had no excuse when it came to the qualifications of Senora Marshall. Though she had been a nursing assistant and child care worker at various institutions, she lacked the necessary bachelor's degree, Marshall said in an interview.
Marshall, who acknowledged filing for personal bankruptcy in 1997 and again last year, also lacked experience running a business. She had three homes for as many as 15 youths and in 2002 took in $475,000, according to the latest IRS filing.
Children of Life amassed thousands of dollars in tax liens for not paying sales, use and unemployment taxes, Marshall acknowledged. The group home was staffed, meanwhile, by people who in many cases had no better qualifications than hers. They included friends and family, including her son, Ronald Marshall Jr., a hair stylist, and his girlfriends.
Ruby Marshall, Senora Marshall's former sister-in-law, had been a cashier and saleswoman at stores before she began taking care of girls at the company's group homes in Edgewood.
"I had no idea what I was being thrown into because I had never dealt with children with these problems - temper tantrums, all those medications," Marshall recalled. "It was all new to me."
When she started working for the company in the late 1990s, she didn't have a required high school degree or its equivalent. She said she never received required training in administering medication while working there.
Over time, conditions at the homes deteriorated. Senora Marshall and former counselors spoke of drug use by staff, fights between youths and sex among residents. "My place became Peyton Place," she said.
Ruby Marshall and Marie Chevannes, another former counselor, said food and medication ran out, and youths, moved from their unsupervised home to one with a staff member for the night, were forced to sleep on floors.
County social services workers made similar complaints about kids not getting food, medication or supervision.
"The kids there weren't being treated right," said Chevannes, a former girlfriend of Ronald Marshall Jr. who worked for Children of Life from 1998 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2002.
Senora Marshall blamed social services workers for the lack of coats and medications and denied that there was a shortage of food. But she acknowledged other problems. She fired workers who smoked marijuana, she said in an interview, and suspended counselors who took company vans for drag racing with residents.
It wasn't her fault, she said, blaming bad workers. "Everything that has happened in the last year," she said, "ain't none of it is my fault."
She also said the state inspector assigned to Children of Life didn't call any problems to her attention. "Wouldn't you think your licensing specialist would tell you, so you could correct it?" she asked.
Throughout the months of complaints from case workers, Hassan Amin, the inspector, took little action. For much of that time, Amin ignored their concerns altogether, state records indicate. Eventually, he followed up with letters to Senora Marshall asking her to respond to the complaints.
When she replied, Amin accepted her word. He didn't investigate himself.
On Sept. 30, 2003, for example, he wrote to the group home seeking explanations for some "concerns that his office has received." Amin gave Children of Life almost a month to respond, a deadline it failed to meet, state records indicate.
While Amin was awaiting the company's response, the DHR renewed its licenses.
When Senora Marshall finally faxed a response on Oct. 30, she insisted that the firm adhered to state regulations, blamed county social services workers and school officials for most problems, and dismissed the rest as isolated.
In flawed grammar, she wrote, "I was surprise at some of the allegations. I have the best interest of each and every child who comes across my doors ... as a professional and as a mother myself."
Eventually, the Harford County Department of Social Services stopped placing foster children at Children of Life, except in emergencies.
"There are issues here that border on neglect," Carolyn S. McQuiston, the assistant director for services at Harford County DSS, wrote Amin's boss, Grace Turner, on Jan. 15, 2004.
On March 5, two days after The Sun asked to review Children of Life's records, regulators told the company they would suspend its licenses. On March 18, an unsigned inspection document finally noted that Senora Marshall "does not qualify for the position" of administrator.
The department inadvertently voided its own suspension process by putting the wrong ZIP code on the letter notifying Marshall, delaying its receipt.
Human resources officials have not begun new suspension proceedings, and although no children remain, Marshall still has her licenses.
Today she's trying to restart her business, looking for more children and the hefty income the homes would provide.
"I'm going to open one at first, and then I'm going to do a second," she said.
Sun researchers Elizabeth Lukes and Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.
A look at qualifications for Maryland and three neighboring states:
Administrator/Director: Master's degree, any field;1 year of supervisory experience. OR, Bachelor's, any field; 3 yrs. in human services (2 supervisory).
Counselor: Must be at least 21 yrs. old; high school degree or equivalent. OR, Must be 18; associate's or bachelor's in human services field.
Administrator/Director: Master's in social work or related field; 3 yrs. full-time in child welfare (2 supervisory). OR, Bachelor's in social work; 4 yrs. in field (2 supervisory).
Counselor: Must be 21 and have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Administrator/Director: Master's in any field; 2 yrs. in administration or human services. OR, Bachelor's in any field; 4 yrs. in administration or human services.
Counselor: Must have a high school degree or equivalent. Must be 21 if any child in the facility is 18 or older, or 18 if all the children are under 18.
Administrator/Director: Bachelor's in social work or related field OR, Bachelor's in any field; 2 yrs. of sucessful experience with children in social work or a related field.
Counselor: Must be at least 18 and have a high school degree or equivalent; experience working with children.
Model (Child Welfare League of America)
Administrator/Director: Master's in social work or related field; 4 yrs. supervisory experience.
Counselor: Have a high school degree with at least 2 yrs. in college; experience in the field.
Source: Child Welfare League of America; state regulations