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State must reform system to ensure kids have safe home

The Baltimore Sun

Police allege that Bryanna Harris' mother fed her methadone to stop her from crying and hit her in the abdomen. In the face of Bryanna's abhorrent death, volunteers with Maryland's Citizens Review Board for Children are frustrated that so many of our recommendations for improvements to the child welfare system have been ignored over the past decade.

Bryanna's death will lead to calls for the automatic removal of children from their homes based on some fixed set of indicators - a sure formula for disaster in a stressed system.

We don't have the capacity to remove every child born to a parent with a history of maltreatment. With the loss of more than 1,500 foster families in the past five years, there is literally no place to put them. Also, long experience teaches us that maltreated children love their parents, and being separated from their families is painful to them. Maryland's laws rightly recognize that we owe the children our best efforts to enable their parents to provide safe, loving care.

The main problem in Maryland is that we do not have the array of services we need to promote good parenting.

Parents who mistreat children need more face time with better-qualified, better-trained, better-supervised caseworkers who have manageable caseloads. The caseworkers must have access to service resources such as appropriate substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling and therapeutic day nurseries. If these basic issues are not addressed, our child welfare system will continue to fail.

The single most important reason we lack services for families is that too much of Maryland's child welfare budget is invested in high-cost placements with group homes and treatment foster agencies. Only about 40 percent of the $560 million budget must cover all the costs of investigating maltreatment, administering the program and serving families. About $175 million goes to place just 3,500 children in treatment foster care programs, group homes and residential treatment centers.

These types of placements are appropriate for some children, but Maryland overuses them. The extraordinary cost does not leave sufficient funding to care for the needs of the other 90,000 children who are touched by the child welfare services system each year. At the same time, children and families whose problems are ignored at an early stage sometimes deteriorate to where institutional care is unavoidable.

Skittishness about removing children from their families is not the root cause of the spate of repeat-abuse deaths we've seen in Baltimore. Actually, the city may have the highest placement rate in the nation, according to a study by a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University.

Because of the insufficient resources, front-line caseworkers often are straitjacketed when deciding what to do about marginal parenting. They face a false choice - remove children from the home or do nothing - even in instances when intensive in-home family services could succeed. As a result, unrealistic goals and timeframes are written into case plans, and children are returned to their parents without sufficient intensity or duration of monitoring. It will take sweeping state-level reforms to extricate us from this predicament.

The Citizens Review Board believes that reforms must: focus more energy on preventing child abuse and neglect, as well as on coordinated addiction treatment; strengthen in-home family services, reunification services and foster families; and facilitate guardianship and adoption procedures. They should also lower caseloads by adding to the ranks of workers, implement the new accountability law and fix a deeply flawed computer system.

Maryland's child welfare system is not all gloom and doom. If state government gives Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald the resources she needs to institute the reforms she has designed, rapid improvements could occur. If there's continued penny-pinching on family services, expect to see more distressing headlines.

Charlie Cooper is administrator of the State Citizens Review Board for Children. His e-mail is ccooper@dhr.state.md.us.

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