Legislative auditors issued a stinging rebuke of Maryland's child welfare system yesterday, charging in a special report that state officials misreported caseworker staffing numbers, failed to initiate or complete investigations into reports of abuse, and provided unreliable information to advocates.
As a result of the audit, top lawmakers vowed to investigate the deaths in 2004 of 11 children who were under the care of the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees child welfare programs, including foster care.
"There is a tremendous amount of concern," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who was briefed on the report by the Office of Legislative Audits. "There have been 11 deaths. These kids were under the protective care of the state, and they fell through the cracks."
The 11 children - four of whom lived in Baltimore - died as a result of child abuse or neglect, the DHR said. Legislators said they would also investigate 2005 deaths.
Busch and other legislators said it is too early to know whether the 2004 deaths were related to problems spotlighted in the audit but that they feel obligated to take a closer look because of the seriousness of some of the findings.
"We are going to try to get as much information as we can," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and heads a legislative work group that focuses on child welfare.
"We are looking at a lot of hearings that are going to be scheduled," he said, referring to this year's legislative session, which begins tomorrow. "We will get some answers and hopefully find some way to keep these children safe."
In a Dec. 21 letter of response to auditors, DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said he disagreed with some of their findings, including the auditors' conclusion that the agency had provided incorrect information to advocates who monitor the Baltimore foster care system as part of a 1988 consent decree.
McCabe declined yesterday to discuss the audit, but DHR spokesman Norris P. West said department officials dispute the way auditors calculated staffing numbers. West said the department has made "significant strides" in recent years in hiring caseworkers to meet demands and fill vacancies.
Rebecca Bridgett, acting executive director of the department's Social Services Administration, which directly oversees foster care, said problems remain but that the system is moving in the right direction.
Bridgett, former head of social services in Charles County, has held her post for less than a month. She replaced Wayne T. Stevenson, who resigned abruptly last month.
"Do we want to be at 100 percent? Yes," Bridgett said. "Are we there yet? No."
Child welfare advocates pointed out that the audit - ordered by legislators partly because of allegations of incompetence by whistle-blower Michelle Lane, a former DHR employee and Ehrlich administration operative - supported many of their findings from years past.
The advocates have long complained about staffing deficiencies at the DHR. Recent budget cuts have further hobbled the system, which many advocates say is overburdened and overwhelmed. Advocates have focused on staffing ratios in light of several high-profile deaths.
Children whose deaths made headlines in Baltimore in 2004 included twin infant girls who were beaten by their teenage mother and her boyfriend, and an 18-month-old girl who was born to a drug-addicted mother.
Auditors who studied the DHR's staffing data reported that the agency would have had to hire an additional 130 caseworkers and 26 supervisors to meet staffing requirements based on caseloads during a sample period last year.
"This has been something that we have just been hammering on the department about for a number of years now," said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore advocacy group that has pushed for more transparency at the DHR. "As we suspected, they were not calculating [staffing numbers] correctly."
Auditors said the DHR provided "unreliable" numbers on child welfare staffing because officials failed to adhere to national staffing standards set by the Child Welfare League of America or to take into account employee leave and vacancies.
The staffing numbers played a pivotal role in $3.5 million in funding that the DHR received last year. Legislators had told agency officials that they would not release the money until they saw proof that the DHR was close to national standards on staffing.
Legislators and advocates agreed yesterday that to take the money back now because the DHR presented unreliable numbers would be counterproductive.
In reviewing the DHR's response to reports of suspected child abuse or neglect, auditors said, they found that investigations were not initiated or completed within the time required by state law. In some cases, they said, they could not find documentation to prove that supervisors had reviewed decisions to dismiss allegations of abuse or neglect.
The auditors said that in some instances in which contact could not be made with an adult, cases were dropped without finding other ways to talk to an adult.
Auditors also reported that social workers failed to meet monthly with foster children to ensure proper care. In some cases, social workers made telephone calls to children instead of meeting with them face to face, auditors said.
The audit also found that information forwarded to attorneys who represent city foster children as part of a federal court consent decree was at times unreliable, in part because of poor administrative and organizational practices at the DHR.
Attorneys for the children have been complaining about bad information for years, said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, one of the original attorneys in the case.
Mirviss said the DHR had relied on inaccurate information in an effort to avoid changes that "might have fixed the foster care system years ago."
"It's time for [DHR] to open its books and allow for real accountability," he said.