Child welfare funding sought

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unveiled yesterday a package of child welfare and juvenile justice proposals that would expand access to day care for low-income families, improve foster care placements, better train child welfare caseworkers and offer more community-based services to children in the juvenile justice system.

The more than $65 million in new funding -- along with previously announced proposals to beef up lead abatement and enact stricter rules for teenage drivers -- makes up the bulk of Ehrlich's legislative agenda, which also includes legalizing slot machines and restricting medical malpractice lawsuits.

The governor said he expects to have little trouble gaining support in the General Assembly for yesterday's proposals, part of his "Year of the Child" initiatives.

"We can and should do a better job in delivering services to children generally and most especially children in difficult or marginal situations," Ehrlich said.

Most of the new money -- $43 million -- will go to fund foster care and adoption programs. The governor also included $1 million in his budget to recruit new foster parents.

In previous years, foster care has been underfunded and the department has had to scrape together money from federal grants and savings in other programs to pay for it, said Department of Human Resources spokesman Norris P. West. The new figure is a more honest assessment of the program's cost, he said.

About $6.2 million will go toward providing juvenile justice services to children in community settings instead of in state facilities.

Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said the new funding will be enough to allow the state to monitor about 100 of the 2,000 children now committed to state institutions and group homes in their communities.

The new money in the budget also will help the department to provide transition services to children when they leave state facilities so that they avoid repeating the behavior that put them in the state's care to begin with.

"These kids come from very difficult neighborhoods. ... We ask them to go on the straight and narrow. It's silly for us to look at those kids and expect a short-term stay in our services will change lifelong habits," Ehrlich said.

Montague, whose efforts to fix the state's troubled juvenile justice system are under scrutiny from legislators eager for quicker reform, said the new approach will help prevent recidivism and save the state money.

'A national model'

"Research has shown that our kids who are in trouble fare much better when they are in contact with their communities and their families," Montague said. "This is a national model for what should be done."

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has been active in juvenile justice issues, said providing better community services is a worthy goal but does not relieve the state's need to overhaul its residential facilities.

"Putting them in the community is a lot cheaper than building the right type of facilities. Unfortunately, they continue to overlook that serious crisis, which is the fact that we simply don't have residential places to put the kids," Zirkin said. "If they do one without the other, it will be a failure, an absolute failure."

The governor also has proposed spending $10 million to launch a new database to track children in the welfare system; $1.4 million to hire new child welfare caseworkers; and $1.7 million for a child welfare case worker training academy.

The Department of Human Resources has faced chronic understaffing and is under threat of losing state funding if it doesn't hire more caseworkers.

Day care help

The governor's budget proposal also would provide subsidized day care for 2,400 more children. The extra funding will expand the subsidies to low-income parents who are not on the welfare rolls, West said.

Scot Spencer, manager of Baltimore relations for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare advocacy group, said the governor's plan to spend $2 million in seed money for public-private partnerships for early intervention programs is particularly promising.

The idea, which is backed by the Casey Foundation, Advocates for Children and Youth, and several other groups, calls for money to be spent on early childhood education, after-school programs and other initiatives. Such spending can prevent children from getting into trouble and save the state money in the long run, Spencer said.

Public safety plans

Ehrlich also announced several new public safety initiatives yesterday, including bills to expand the state's capability to collect DNA samples from felons and to improve information-sharing between state agencies in emergencies.

The governor said he has included in his budget $20.6 million to speed criminal records checks; $12.5 million to modernize the state's fingerprint identification system; and $7.5 million to give state police troopers "smart cars" with real-time access to criminal databases.

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