The Baltimore City Department of Social Services office at 301 N. Gay St. was never intended to house children - but lots of them have spent nights there.
More than 100 foster children have slept in the office since January, when social workers began using it as a de facto shelter, according to lawyers who represent the city's foster children. The list includes a 16-year-old girl who slept there 20 nights in row and a 15-year-old boy who stayed there 11 nights. The youngest guest was an 8-year-old girl, the lawyers say.
The illegal shelter outraged foster care advocates when it became public last week. But city social services officials say it's better to let children sleep in the office than roam the streets. Many of the children have emotional and behavioral problems and have either been rejected for placement at treatment facilities or have refused to be placed.
Despite protests from advocates for the children, officials did not immediately stop the practice. Two boys spent a night each at the office Wednesday and Thursday, said Samuel Chambers Jr., Baltimore's DSS chief.
The issue comes at a time when social services officials say they are having a difficult time finding alternative homes for foster children. The number of foster families in the state has dropped significantly in recent years, from nearly 5,500 in 2002 to about 3,900 in 2005.
Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney who represents the city's 7,000 foster children as part of a long-standing consent decree, worries that the illegal shelter will continue to operate. Children who stayed there slept on chairs or thin mattresses on the floor.
"A boy was sitting there in a chair for 11 nights," Mirviss said. "That is a grave problem that should not have been allowed to exist under any possible child welfare principle. ... That type of condition rises to the level of mental cruelty."
Mirviss says it appears that police dropped off some of the children at the office, which is staffed 24 hours a day.
DSS concedes that the children slept in the office, but has given only scant information about how they got there. Social services officials also confirm that some children ran away from the office.
Chambers has been criticized for allowing the children to stay at the office. He says the problem is more complex than it seems, and that there is no one solution. He believes it will take an overhaul of the city's social services system to ensure that children have a place to stay, even in an emergency.
"This is a failure of the system," he said. "Clearly you can't blame one part of the system for this. It will take a broad and diverse array of solutions. I am so afraid we are going to look for the one solution and then we'll fix it and everyone will think this is over."
Baltimore is not alone in its foster care dilemma.
Last month in Los Angeles, six foster children escaped from a county office building where they were being housed illegally. An investigation into the matter found that more than 100 youths had been housed at the office over a two-year period. Caseworkers there complained that they had no place else to take the children, many of whom had serious mental or emotional problems.
In Baltimore, Mirviss and other attorneys have vowed to interview each of the children who stayed at the Gay Street office to find out how they wound up there.
An investigation has also been ordered by the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees foster care, but child advocates worry that the review won't be thorough enough. They have requested that a private company look into the situation.
DHR secretary Christopher J. McCabe released Friday a list of "action steps" to try to make sure children wouldn't end up at the city social services office in the future. McCabe got funding for 30 slots at treatment facilities last week and said that he was working with group homes to come up with a database that would provide DSS with timely information about open slots. Plans for a 24-hour youth shelter also are in the works.
Child advocates wonder why DSS is having such a difficult time placing difficult youths. Obstinate juveniles and runaways are nothing new. Some believe the situation at Gay Street could be emblematic of more disturbing problems. A recent series in The Sun pointed out serious management lapses at several group homes. Some say foster children are refusing placement in group homes for similar reasons.
"These kids are making it clear that their needs are not being met, that the system does not have enough resources," said Dr. Michael Bogrov, a psychiatrist who works with foster children at an in-patient unit at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson.
Bogrov and other advocates said the foster care system lacks adequate treatment for many children, and that, as a result, some end up in situations that don't meet their needs. Some are forced into mental institutions, for example, when they can't be placed at a group home. A greater variety of treatment options is needed, advocates argue, including therapeutic foster homes, which allow children to live in private homes while receiving mental- and emotional-support services.
State officials agree.
"We need more therapeutic foster homes," said Chambers, who has worked with state officials to put together a statewide campaign to encourage more people to become foster parents.
The state has lost a large number of foster families in recent years, in part because of an aging roster of foster parents, said Sharon Hargrove, foster care manager for DHR. In some cases, foster families adopt children and then can't take any more. Some foster families have left the system because they feel they don't get enough support. Reimbursement also is a problem, she said.
Foster families who take in infants and younger children receive $535 a month, Hargrove said. Those who shelter older children - age 12 and older - receive $550. Maryland ranks about fifth in the nation in terms of compensation, she said, but if the state wants to recruit new families, especially those willing to take on troubled children, the amount should increase.
Chambers, who dealt with welfare reform in some of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods before coming to Baltimore last year, said he knows the problem at the Gay Street office is much more serious than he once thought. But he's resolved to fix it.
"This is not something that blew up yesterday because we decided we didn't want to place kids anymore," he said. "But I think we have turned a lot of corners and people are really trying to respond as best they know how to respond."