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Fixing a broken agency

The Baltimore Sun

The resignation of Samuel Chambers Jr. as head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services needs to be more than a symbolic move for an agency that has long needed a major overhaul.

Mr. Chambers, who came to the job in 2004 after extensive child welfare experience, particularly in Michigan, was unable to implement changes that would have made an entrenched bureaucracy work more effectively for vulnerable children. His departure must trigger a more urgent effort to restore confidence and credibility in this agency's ability to protect children from harm while helping the city's most troubled families.

With the help of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Brenda Donald, secretary of Maryland's Department of Human Resources, which oversees DSS, must come up with a restructuring plan and the resources to reset the agency's course.

Just how badly the agency needs reform is reflected in the case of Vernice Harris, who has been charged with killing her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna, last June after having two older children taken away from her in 2002. Whatever additional services were taken to help Ms. Harris or to ensure Bryanna's safety don't seem to have been effective.

Such lapses are unacceptable for an agency that is responsible for 6,000 children, or about 60 percent of the state's child welfare cases. Overall caseloads may be down, but too many cases are still not being handled properly.

Ms. Donald has imposed some changes at DSS, including placing one of her top deputies as a direct supervisor over Mr. Chambers as part of a two-month-old reform effort called Baltimore ReBuild. But in a legislative hearing yesterday, she candidly admitted the need to overcome persistent organizational shortcomings.

There is general agreement among seasoned experts that the most critical necessary reforms include enhanced training of caseworkers and supervisors - with on-the-job coaching as well as class instruction - to improve case management; family-centered team decision-making that gets appropriate services to parents and care-giving relatives while also keeping children out of harm's way; and better ways to identify and coordinate services to children born into families with a history of abuse.

To help jump-start some of these reforms, Ms. Donald shouldn't have to remind Mr. O'Malley of the pain of dealing with cases like that of Bryanna Harris when he was mayor of Baltimore. The governor should help Ms. Donald provide crucial resources and support to the dynamic new leader recruited to replace Mr. Chambers.

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