In a study highly critical of Maryland's foster care program, a child advocacy group has found that social workers wait nearly two years before trying to match foster children with adoptive parents, while the children are bounced from one home to another.
The 61-page report, to be released today by Advocates for Children and Youth, says social workers waste too much time hoping to reunite children with unfit birth parents instead of seeking stable homes for them.
Children remain in foster care too long -- an average of 4 1/2 years -- before they finally are adopted, the report asserts. It blames social workers and administrators for waiting nearly two years, on average, before even seeking adoption.
"The unfortunate thing is that there is not a sense of urgency," said Sally C. Millemann, who wrote the report for the nonprofit organization. "If workers have a focus on permanence for kids and are driven by that goal, an enormous amount would change for the better."
The report, "A Study of Barriers to the Placement of Foster Care Children in Permanent Homes," was financed by the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy. It took eight months to complete.
The study found that finding permanent homes for children is slowed by foster care workers who are unfamiliar with the law, delays in court cases to terminate parental rights, failure to locate family members, lack of clear guidelines for workers and insufficient coordination between employees in foster care and adoption services.
Children usually are taken from birth parents because of abuse or neglect. About 7,500 children are in Maryland's foster care system.
Lynda G. Fox, a deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources who is familiar with the report, acknowledged delays in the system. But she said her agency is looking at ways to get foster children into permanent homes faster.
"We're in the process of recruiting an executive director of our social services administration. When that person comes aboard, we are going to be undertaking a review of our whole foster care system," she said.
She said her department will form a commission on adoption to seek ways to speed the process of finding permanent homes.
But the length of time outside a permanent home is not the only problem the report identifies.
Susan P. Leviton, president and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth, said children "are damaged" by multiple moves, and their histories in foster care worry prospective adoptive parents.
The report cites examples of how foster children are shuttled from home to home: One-fourth of the children in the state's system had been in foster care before, and two of them had been in seven foster homes, the study found.
The report urges state officials to seek permanent settings for foster children early, when it is apparent that their birth parents never will be able to care for them. The report maintains that children suffer more by having to wait after leaving parents who are all but hopeless.
"A lot of these children are not going to go back home," Ms. Millemann said. "The sooner they can get back into a stable home, the better it is for them and for prospective adoptive parents."
She said parents whose children are removed should be warned early that they will lose parental rights unless they make visible improvements in their behavior.
The study found that once caseworkers abandon a return-home plan and look toward adoption, foster children have spent an average of nearly two years in state care.
By the time children are adopted, they have been in foster care 54 months, the statewide average shows. But in Baltimore, that average jumps to 65 months -- five years and five months -- the report says.
Ms. Fox, the DHR deputy secretary, said that, although she is unhappy with the length of time foster children remain in the system, the situation is not as bleak as the numbers indicate.
She said 1,500 of the 7,500 children in foster care live in "restrictive foster care," usually with relatives. Statistics are skewed by those children, she said, because they may never be adopted -- relatives want to avoid disputes -- but they often live in "permanent conditions."
The study found, in fact, that over a seven-year period the state has reduced the length of time children spend in foster care.
In 1987, children spent an average of 27.6 months in foster care before adoption, but by last year, the average was 22 months.
Still, the nonprofit group says, the process would be faster if the state followed regulations that already are in place.
Those include: setting a goal of 18 months from initial placement to permanent placement; reviewing plans after 120 days and then every 180 days; reassessing the parents within 60 days to determine if reunification is likely; and requiring the director of the jurisdiction's Department of Social Services to approve return-home plans a year after placement.
Ms. Fox defended her agency, saying, "I think we're making every effort to follow the time frames as intended. We certainly don't want kids in out-of-home care longer than absolutely necessary."
Nothing is unusual about delays in foster care systems permanently placing children while social workers decide whether it is better to reunite children with birth parents or look elsewhere.
Betsey Rosenbaum, director of family and child welfare services the American Public Welfare Association in Washington, cited a 1989 Department of Health and Human Services survey of 10 states that showed that children stay in foster care from six to 54 months before workers try to get them adopted. Maryland's two-year average falls about in the middle of that range.
"The decision to terminate parental rights is a big decision," Ms. Rosenbaum said. "I don't know whether either side is absolutely right or absolutely wrong."
In addition to addressing the problems identified in the report, Ms. Millemann said social workers should monitor troubled homes more closely. If the problem that caused a child's removal does not improve within three months, workers immediately should take steps to place that child in an adoptive home.
Ms. Leviton said social workers learn quickly which homes are good candidates for improvement.
"If you work intensively with a family, you're pretty clear in three months," she said. "Foster care is wonderful, but it's only supposed to be a temporary solution. It's not supposed to be permanent."