A hearing on the status of Maryland's child welfare programs turned confrontational yesterday as legislators in Annapolis grilled Department of Human Resources officials on an audit that exposed flaws in the agency's staffing numbers, abuse and neglect investigations, and recordkeeping.
DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, responding publicly for the first time to the audit that was released last week, said he and his team of administrators recognize that there is room for improvement, but emphasized that they have made important changes, such as increasing staffing.
The sniping started almost immediately, with Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, scolding McCabe for what he characterized as wasting time with a lengthy introduction about what his department does.
"You are going to get to the findings of the audit," said Currie, cutting McCabe off at midsentence. "We really want to get to these findings."
McCabe, who has spent much of his three-year tenure as head of the state's welfare system answering questions about child deaths, poor care at group homes and staffing, responded to Currie with equal frustration.
"Clearly, audits have a place, but it's not always the full picture and it's easy to sensationalize some of the findings," he told Currie and other legislators representing three budget and taxation committees, two from the Senate and one from the House.
As a result of the audit, lawmakers have vowed to investigate the deaths in 2004 of 11 children who were under the care of DHR, which oversees child welfare programs, including foster care. They have also said they will review child deaths in 2005 as soon as a tally is available.
Child welfare staffing has increased, from 1,718 in 2004 to 1,863 today, said Rebecca Bridgett, acting executive director of the state's Social Services Administration, in response to auditors' remarks that the agency has not hired enough workers to handle child welfare cases.
Auditors said DHR failed to calculate leave time in determining how many caseworkers they would need to meet service demands. Auditors found that the agency would have had to hire an additional 130 caseworkers and 26 supervisors to meet industry standards.
DHR officials told lawmakers that despite efforts to recruit recent college graduates to the system, hiring has been a challenge. In some cases, those with degrees in social work are lured to the private sector, where the pay is better. Also, a large number of caseworkers are at or near retirement, officials said. As a result, the agency still needs to hire about 120 workers.
As for other issues raised by the audit, Bridgett, who presented the official response on behalf of DHR, said that most will be resolved once a new computer system comes on line in the next few months.
That system, referred to by the acronym CHESSIE, has been in the works for a number of years and is expected to cost about $42 million to implement. DHR officials said the system will allow for more accurate tracking of abuse and neglect reports, as well as monthly visits between caseworkers and the children they supervise.
"As you can see, we are moving forward to improve practice," Bridgett said. "We expect to tell you more good news ... soon."
Many of the legislators who attended the joint hearing were not appeased and chided DHR officials for failing to pinpoint problems or give them advice for legislation or budget requests.
"The report is not good for us," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat. "The findings are horrendous. ... Just tell us what is going on."
Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she had heard about progress at DHR but had yet to see results. She asked committee leaders to make sure DHR provides legislators with updates on training on the CHESSIE computer system.
Currie said he would ask Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch, who requested the first audit, to order a follow-up. Currie said he would confer with DHR officials as to the proper time for the next audit.
Said Currie: "This is the one state agency where the lives of people really depend on the agency."