Worried that Maryland's most vulnerable children are often shortchanged by overburdened social workers, state officials are calling for smaller caseloads and more consistent services.
A study by two state agencies proposes a pilot program to test reforms that would cut caseloads by half to two-thirds in some areas, making each social worker and a half-time aide responsible for no more than eight families. Four existing child welfare programs would be combined, so each social worker-aide team would be responsible for all of a family's needs.
The proposals follow the highly publicized death last year of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher of Pikesville, who died after weeks of abuse and neglect and despite months of social service contacts, and similar highly publicized cases on the Eastern Shore and in Montgomery County.
Based on a model program Anne Arundel County has been operating with private money, the three-year pilot program would run in Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Caroline and Allegany counties and cost $573,000 in state funds per year.
Child welfare advocates who support the overall reforms criticize the pilot proposal for leaving Baltimore out and providing too little help that will take too long to go statewide.
The reforms are prompted by a new state law sponsored by Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.
"The bill simply tries to restate our standards that we believe once existed," she said.
Linda D. Ellard, executive director for social services in the state Department of Human Resources, said the state is among the first to attempt reforms recommended by the federal Safe Families Act approved by Congress last year. "We will consider whole families in this," instead of individual children dealt with under different programs and by different social workers.
Despite the desire for reform, reducing caseloads statewide all at once could cost up to $50 million, the study says, an amount that would "blow it out of the water" with legislators, who would have to vote on the expenditure, said McIntosh. Ellard agreed.
The state is already facing one cost -- raises for social workers, a proposal officials made in October. The raises would be at least 6 percent and start next year.
Ellard said the counties chosen for the pilot program encompass jurisdictions of different sizes and demographics.
The study found that Anne Arundel's experiment with the eight-family caseload system cut the number of children sent to foster care and the length of time each family needed help, which in turn cut costs.
More importantly, instead of seeing different social workers at different times for different things, families see only one worker and one aide. The program helps build trust, officials say. The aide is a vital part of the equation, providing transportation and help with budgeting, child discipline, basic family chores and other tasks.
That frees the social worker to concentrate on family counseling and link families to community support groups to keep them functioning once the intensive care stops.
"We found it worked," said Deputy Anne Arundel Social Services Director Dorothy A. Boyle, who says that although families receive services for an average of only four months, they are encouraged to recontact the agency if they need help later.
Camille B. Wheeler, who was Baltimore County social services director for 19 years, worried that shortening services to an average of only four months per family and placing fewer children in foster care could pose a danger.
"I think small caseloads make a lot of sense," she said, but "the trick is figuring which kid is going to get hurt -- that's a pretty substantial risk." She added, "It's all a balance."
Wheeler, an instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, left her county job eight months after Fisher's death.
Some child welfare advocates say leaving Baltimore out of the mix is an equally big mistake.
"One-half to two-thirds of the caseload is in Baltimore -- when are we going to learn?" asked an exasperated Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the Maryland Foster Care Review Board and chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Children.
Yvonne Gilchrist, Baltimore's social services director, has asked that at least part of the city be included in the pilot, said spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons, and Ellard said the state is working to accommodate that request.
Ellard said that to include all of Baltimore would mean "it's no longer a pilot." Prince George's has the second-largest load of child welfare cases, she said, and that's why it was chosen.
Cooper said he and the agencies he represents "are quite upset with that [study] report."
"The overall effort [to reform children's services] we feel is very good," he said, but the pilot program that includes counties with a minority of the foster care and protective services caseload in the state is a major error, he said.
"The whole idea of going that slow says we're going to delay putting money in this as long as we can," he said. "We want some real help, especially for child protective services."
Pub Date: 12/16/98