FOR AT LEAST five months, the lobby and a side room of an office building on Gay Street leased for the Baltimore Department of Social Services have served as overnight shelter for traumatized children in state custody. If the children's parents had done the same, the state could have charged them with neglect. We so charge the state - and the scores of state workers who stood by silently as this crisis continued, night after night.
Perhaps the people running the DSS 24-hour intake center couldn't have predicted it would become a de facto drop-in shelter, where children sat overnight waiting for appropriate or acceptable placements. But when they saw it happening day after day, they should have acted swiftly - to assist the children.
A merry-go-round of perhaps a dozen, perhaps dozens of children sat in waiting room chairs night after night, attorneys and advocates told Sun reporter Lynn Anderson. They had no access to showers, toiletries, bedding, pillows. Four each night had beds; the rest apparently slept sitting up. State workers watched over them, fed them fast food, didn't take them to school.
These children were declared by the court to need state assistance because of problems at home; the last thing they needed was more proof that nobody would look out for them.
After the first night, officials should have been finding temporary solutions, even if they were as extreme as renting hotel rooms for children and DSS caseworkers, as DSS did in a similar situation in 1989 and 1990. There is a state juvenile detention facility across the street that the Department of Juvenile Services says often has an empty wing - perhaps that could have been used. At the least, DJS food workers could have prepared meals for these kids.
Perhaps the state should invest in more places such as Woodburn Center, where children get intensive mental care as well as shelter, and in juvenile courts, to reduce the time it takes to get emergency commitments. Surely it should invest more in foster families; the loss of more than 1,000 places for children in foster care in the past two years could explain why there is nobody to call at 2 a.m. to take in a child in desperate straits. Certainly, officials should work fast to open a licensed, worthy drop-in shelter in the city; perhaps a church coalition or other nonprofits could help.
To solve the problem long term, DSS also should review its rolls, which it hasn't done since 1989. Then it found more children in need of foster care homes with parents trained in therapeutic techniques; that convinced the state to spend money to train more families. If the population of needy children has changed, as some officials say, a census now would help the agency and its advocates argue for what may be needed. In any case, we guarantee the answer won't be making children sleep on hard chairs overnight in office lobbies.