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Baltimore to be part of pilot program to ease social services; Caseload reduction will be compared with accreditation


A pilot program intended to help Maryland's most vulnerable children by reducing social workers' caseloads and intensifying services will include part of Baltimore City with Caroline and Allegany counties, state human resources officials say.

The state also plans another, parallel effort to upgrade social services in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Washington and Garrett counties by seeking professional accreditation of their agencies, a state official told the Senate Finance Committee yesterday in Annapolis.

Linda Ellard, director of the state's Social Services Administration, said the idea is to compare the caseload reduction results with those in counties achieving accreditation, to see which works best. Baltimore County is the only accredited public social service agency in Maryland.

The Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children Inc. accredits agencies based on achieving certain levels of caseloads and qualifications of workers.

The moves, with an earlier state decision to raise Maryland social workers' pay and eliminate unqualified contractual workers, are in response to the highly publicized death of 9-year-old Rita Denise Fisher of Pikesville in 1997, and other highly publicized abuse cases in Montgomery County and on the Eastern Shore. Rita, a third-grader, died at home weighing 45 pounds and covered with bruises after weeks of abuse and neglect -- despite months of contacts with Baltimore County social workers.

A bill enacted by last year's General Assembly required many changes to bring Maryland's child protective services programs back to where they once were, according to Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and the bill's sponsor.

Adding Northwest Baltimore to the pilot program came partly in response to criticism from child advocacy groups who said the state is moving too slowly, and that leaving out the city -- which has more than half the state's child welfare cases -- is ridiculous.

Ellard described the area "as the city's highest referral zone." She didn't ask to include the whole city, she said, because of the cost. That would come on top of the $25 million cost of the pay upgrades and conversion of 480 contractual social workers to fully qualified, permanent employees.

"What I didn't want to do is come down here and ask for $50 million more [to cut caseloads statewide]. This is a test," she said.

The idea is to make one qualified social worker and a half-time aide responsible for no more than eight families. Four child welfare programs would be combined, so that each team would tend to all of a family's needs. That, officials say, would help intensify services, reduce the number of children going to foster care and the length of time each family needs help.

But groups such as Advocates for Children and Youth and the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth are skeptical of the state's commitment. They say things have slipped so far in Maryland that a pilot study is too little, too late. Their leaders say state agencies are so overburdened and understaffed that many child abuse reports are screened over the telephone and never investigated.

"In some areas, workers are handling 30 cases," said Jann Jackson, director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "All of that speaks to a system that's not responsive to true need."

"We all know this isn't going to be done in one year," said James Paul McComb, executive director of the Maryland association. "But it's disturbing that this is a pilot."

Jackson said a pilot study "is needless -- just a stalling tactic. We want to see full implementation and we want to see adequate funding for that," she said.

But state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Northwest Baltimore/Baltimore County Democrat and Finance Committee member who closely follows social services issues, said there's "definitely a commitment" by the state to do it.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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