Decades later, and foster kids still suffer

The Baltimore Sun

Bill Grimm was in his mid-30s when he filed a civil rights lawsuit in 1984, charging widespread mistreatment of children in foster care in Baltimore. The suit was settled four years later with the state agreeing to vast, systemwide improvements, and Grimm went off to a California-based national advocacy group to fight similar battles elsewhere, thinking his work was done in Maryland.

Well, not so fast.

Today, Grimm is 58. Suits he has filed against other states have been tried and resolved. He can cite foster care reforms he's helped push in states from Washington to Utah to California. He's even seen one governor he tangled with in Arkansas go on to become president, and now, that governor's wife is running for that office as well.

And how about back in Maryland, the first state in which he tried to help these most vulnerable children, taken from their own homes because of abuse or neglect and at the mercy of the state to place them in safe homes?

"Virtually every aspect of the system is deficient," Grimm said flatly when I reached him yesterday at his office at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.

As Lynn Anderson reports in The Sun today, lawyers for the children went to federal court yesterday to detail - in more than 400 sometimes-heartbreaking pages - how the state continues to fail foster kids. Some are sent to homes where they are abused. Others are bounced from facility to facility. Caseworkers aren't always visiting them monthly, as required, to monitor their well-being. Even the basics - like getting them medical and dental care, or enrolling them in school - prove a challenge for the state and city social services agencies.

In other words, some of the same problems that prompted his lawsuit in 1984 remain, some of the same problems that the state pledged to remedy in the 1988 consent decree that settled the suit.

"We can't expect an agency to change overnight," Grimm said.

Or two decades, for that matter.

"It's amazing these things are still going on," he said.

Grimm was called back to Maryland last summer - he grew up in Kensington and got his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Maryland - to help with what he calls "intense" negotiations with the state to bring this long-running issue, finally, to true resolution.

"That went nowhere," he said.

Grimm's praise for the lawyers keeping the fight going - including Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who worked with Grimm at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau to file the initial lawsuit and now is a partner at Venable, and Rhonda Lipkin, of the Public Justice Center - is matched only by his disdain for the agencies and political leaders who have failed to live up to the consent decree that mandated reform.

"There's a lack of sustained will to make change happen," he said. "How many administrations have come and gone and paid lip service to the consent decree?"

Grimm said that the occasional death of a child in foster care will spark outrage and a flurry of promises to fix the system. But, eventually, even those tragic events fade and everyone moves on - because foster children are far from the most powerful of constituencies.

"Where's the political fallout? These kids do not vote. Their parents probably do not vote. These people are from poor neighborhoods. They have no lobbyists," Grimm said. "Frankly, it's pretty easy for politicians to push this aside, except for the occasional sound bite - 'these most needy of children.'"

The problems are deep and beyond the quick fix, Grimm said: Social workers can have too many cases to juggle, kids are often sent to live in group homes rather than with a family, there aren't enough people willing to be foster parents.

"There's a long-standing neglect of foster parents. They are not being supported," he said. "And they're your best recruiters of other foster parents, so if they're not getting the support they need, they're not bringing in new people."

It baffles him that Baltimore's social service agencies have not been able to tap into the city's wealth of great medical and mental health institutions for help. "We've litigated cases in rural areas of Nevada where there were no mental health services, or even medical services," Grimm said. "For an urban area not to be able to pull together the resources to support these children - it's inexcusable. Baltimore should be an example for the nation."

While change hasn't come as quickly as he imagined when he first negotiated the consent decree, he doesn't regret filing the suit. And he still has hope, although maybe not as much as he started out with.

"There are other systems that have made improvements," he said. "They're not perfect; there are no perfect systems. But it's not impossible."

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