State launches foster care reform

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's child welfare agency has joined with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to reform foster care in the state, including increasing the number of foster families and reducing the waiting time for families who wish to adopt a child in foster care.

The foundation's Casey Strategic Consulting Group has worked with officials in New York City and Indiana to improve social services, said Brenda Donald, the head of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees foster care in the state. The number of children in foster care in New York was roughly cut in half between 1996 and 2004.

Donald said she is confident that the partnership will result in similar changes in child protective services in Maryland. She said she hopes to reduce the number of children in group homes, and place more with relatives or "mom and pop" foster families.

Statewide, there are about 10,200 children in foster care; of those, about 1,900 are in group homes, Donald said. Advocates have complained that the state is placing too many children in group homes or residential treatment facilities because they don't have enough foster families.

The problem is particularly serious in the city. The number of foster families in Baltimore has dropped from 1,784 in December 2004 to 1,456 at the end of last year.

"Our kids cannot wait," said Donald, who was appointed head of DHR by Gov. Martin O'Malley in January. "I want to bring a sense of urgency to the situation."

Consultants with Casey have begun analyzing the state's foster care rosters to see where children are placed now and if there is a placement that would better suit their needs, Donald said. The consulting team will provide an initial list of recommendations to Donald and her staff in September, she said. In 18 months, Donald expects a "noticeable change."

She said she hopes that with supportive family services, such as counseling and classes on child-rearing, some children will be able to stay with their biological parents instead of being placed in foster care. If children have to be removed from their homes, she said she would like more to stay with relatives. The problem in the past, however, has been that some relatives have lead paint or other household problems that prevent them from qualifying as foster parents.

"We need to take care of the lead paint," Donald said.

DHR's new strategy is called "Place Matters," and it reflects Donald's belief that children should remain at home, or at least, within their communities. She said she is willing to shift resources to make sure that happens.

"The government should not be raising children," Donald said.

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