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Foster care alternative off to promising start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A new state social services program could keep nearly 1,000 children out of foster care and save the state and federal governments about $9 million in its first full year, based on its performance through last December.

It already has earned Maryland nearly universal acclaim from both child-care and family protection advocates.

Families Now, approved by the General Assembly in 1991 and paid for by shifting $7 million from the state's $120 million foster care budget, aims to keep children out of foster care and to reunite families as quickly as possible when children are removed.

It's working. Projections for the fiscal year ending June 30 show 500 fewer children being placed in foster homes than last fiscal year. The drop becomes more dramatic when figured against the number of placements the state had projected, based on previous years. Using those figures, 925 fewer children will end up in foster care than officials had expected.

State officials estimate it costs $12,000 annually to place a child in foster care, compared with about $1,500 if the family's problems are addressed while the child remains at home.

That's a $10,500 savings for each child who never sees the inside of a foster home -- good news for a state in which fiscal crises have almost become a rite of spring.

Families Now money was spread among Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore and used to pay for several services. They include Intensive Family Service teams, whose members, on call 24 hours, can help with everything from family counseling to getting a house cleaned up to lending money -- on the spot -- to pay rent or buy food.

"The bottom line is, Families Now is working for the state and for the kids," said Charlie Cooper, director of the state Foster Care Review Board. "Nine hundred kids kept out of foster care -- this is real."

And in an age when family values are lamented as something of an endangered species, keeping families together has the added advantage of appearing politically correct. Maryland is among several states that not only have made family protection a matter of policy, but have taken steps to ensure that each jurisdiction has the money to make it a reality.

"Reliance on foster care is not good for kids and it's rotten social policy," said Frank Farrow, director of Child Policy Issues for the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy. He praised Maryland as one of only a few states that has made family preservation a state wide initiative.

"I think kids often went into foster care in the past because we didn't have services to make sure they could stay in the home and be safe," said state Department of Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin. "Clearly, experience has shown that foster care is not the best place for kids. I can't think of what's good about foster care."

Among Baltimore-area counties, Anne Arundel, which established its first Intensive Family Services team in 1985, has had the most success -- both because family preservation has been the prevailing philosophy for almost a decade, and because Department of Social Services workers are committed to the concept, from Director Edward R. Bloom on down.

Before Families Now, the number of Anne Arundel County children placed in foster homes had remained fairly steady at 10 percent of all cases investigated, significantly less than other jurisdictions its size. For the last six months of 1992, the number dipped to 5.3 percent, by far the lowest in the Baltimore-Washington area. Other results ranged from 16.3 percent in Baltimore County to 9.4 percent in Harford County.

Families face array of ills

Many families served by the program are plagued by several problems, including financial problems, past physical abuse, substance abuse, unstable relationships, joblessness and lack of parenting skills. But today's social service workers are trained to look for strengths and glimmers of hope, even in the most troubled families.

For example, a young mother from Pioneer City in Anne Arundel County arrived home recently to find social workers and police removing her four young children, who had been left alone.

The house was unfit for habitation, the social worker told her -- the refrigerator was full of maggots, the rooms nearly impassable because of piles of trash, clothing and broken furniture.

Another young mother, living in Brooklyn Park with her 17-year-old boyfriend, answered the door to find a social worker on her stoop, to investigate allegations of physical and sexual child abuse. The 22-year-old mother denied she has abused her 2-year-old son, and the social worker eventually believed her. But the mother confessed she was abused as a child and feared doing the same.

Not long ago, both mothers would have faced losing their children to foster care for months, possibly years. But because of the work of family services teams, the Pioneer City woman lost her children for only a weekend; after cleaning up her house and her act considerably, they were returned. The Brooklyn Park mother kept her family together while receiving counseling and other help. Social service workers, who continue to monitor both families, see hope.

While the commitment of its workers may be a model for all counties, the nuts and bolts of Anne Arundel's system differs little from that used in other counties. After an initial investigation by a worker from Child Protective Services, cases may be closed, earmarked for foster care or assigned to one of three service levels -- the most intensive of which is Intensive Family Services.

Each team works with a maximum of six families at a time, over a 90-day period. If families need more help, the period is extended or the family is referred to another less-intensive level of service. Teams visit families as often as several times a day.

"This is a program that works. . . . This makes absolutely perfect sense," said Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide advocacy program. "In America, we have this view that we don't intervene with families, which is basically good -- except that if you take that view, you only intervene when families are in extremely bad shape. And by then, social workers feel the only option is to remove children.

"Then we'd put them in foster care . . . and after spending $40,000 [over two years], we'd return them to the family and nothing had changed. It made no sense."

Mr. Farrow of the Center for the Study of Social Policy also lauded Maryland for pioneering the concept of "flexible funds," money available for social workers to use at their discretion.

"Workers can actually go in there and get something done quickly," he said. "It's different from other programs, where you have to get clearance all the way up the ladder to do things."

Unexpected salvation

When Barbara Geiger, an Intensive Family Services worker in Anne Arundel County, arrived at the home of Angela Allen in Laurel, there was no time for bureaucracy. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was threatening to turn off the electricity, the phone bill was two months behind, and Ms. Allen's landlord was preparing to take her to court to collect back rent.

What followed shows how family services intervention can save a family, without tearing it apart in the process.

Ms. Allen's second husband had left a month earlier, taking the car and leaving her with four children, age 2 to 16, one of whom is disabled and needs around-the-clock care. She'd been unemployed for three months, having been fired from a medical assistant job because of absences for kidney problems.

Money was tight and stress was mounting.

L Then came the knock at her door -- and unexpected salvation.

A social worker, responding to a report of unattended minors and alleged sexual misconduct in the home, was there to conduct an investigation.

"I felt numb," said Ms. Allen, a petite 33-year-old who maintains the report was fabricated. "I didn't know what else could possibly happen to me. It's been really rough."

After an initial evaluation, the social worker agreed the report was unfounded. But she also knew Ms. Allen and her family were in trouble and needed help.

She hooked up with the family services unit, which took the case immediately.

In addition to helping with back bills and money for food, so Ms. Allen could catch up on the rent, Ms. Geiger and parent aide Jeanie Herold offered many practical suggestions, like returning rental furniture costing the family almost $200 a month. Ms. Geiger had donated furniture dropped off, which looked fine and cost nothing.

The workers helped start the process for collecting child support from the children's four different fathers, none of whom were contributing regularly to the family income. They offered suggestions for finding work and a specially equipped van, which Ms. Allen needs to transport her disabled son to school.

Throughout the process, the team offered continual emotional support, often sitting and listening as their client discussed her problems and her hopes.

"The one good thing about all this is that I got hooked up with

IFS," she said, three weeks after the family services team started working with her. "I was going down real quick. My husband took the car and left me with everything -- all the bills, the kids. I don't know what I would have done without them. I think I would have lost my kids."

John Bechill, supervisor of the family services program in Anne ,, Arundel County, said the Allen case illustrates exactly how family intervention should work.

"There were a lot of positive things there. She's a mother who really cares about her kids," he said. "I think all families deserve this opportunity. Children's parents are most often the best people to raise them. And we can help them do that more effectively."

"Years ago, the approach was definitely more punitive," said lTC Pamela Smesler, a supervisor in child protective services in Anne Arundel County. "The attitude was, if you've done something wrong, you lose your kids. We've learned from experience that doesn't work too well."

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