After angry foster care providers grumbled that the state Department of Human Resources was acting like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the department secretary scrapped a plan to delay foster payments until the end of the month.
A test this month of the department's new automated payment system for foster providers meant that city group homes would have received money several weeks later than they are accustomed to, with the first batch of checks going in the mail Dec. 23. Because small group homes often survive month to month, some officials feared they would not have been able to make payroll, pay bills or provide holiday treats for the kids in their care.
There are about 3,000 foster families and 310 group homes across the state, including 56 group homes in Baltimore. The state pays providers about $350 million per year. Foster parents, and even some disgruntled group home providers, said they see benefits to the new system, which will issue payments from the state comptroller's office rather than from the local social services agencies. The change is expected to make it easier to verify that payments are correct before a check is cut.
The system will be tested next month and be implemented in February, department officials said. As part of the test this month, providers were mailed invoices, but their payments will be issued as they have been in the past.
"We don't want anybody to suffer a hardship, especially right around the holidays," DHR Secretary Brenda Donald said of the change of plans. After hearing that providers were upset, she decided Wednesday to begin mailing checks Dec. 10.
In a letter to foster providers yesterday, Donald warned that this will be the last month for early payments. Beginning in January, all state foster providers - including city group homes - will be paid on the 23rd, the new system's regular payment date.
The automated payments are "the last remaining major challenge" for full implementation of the expensive and long-delayed Children's Electronic Social Services Information Exchange, also called "Chessie." The federal government paid for about half of the $68 million for the system and is pushing the state to fully use it or risk having to repay the grants.
Department officials informed foster providers through mailings and meetings about the change in the foster payment schedule. One notice, dated Nov. 10, stated in bold, underlined text that payments would be mailed Dec. 23.
Donald said her first reaction to provider complaints about the late checks was that she had given "plenty of notice" about what was happening. But she said sometimes, "despite all advanced planning, change doesn't become real until it's happening."
But some providers and advocates said it is more a case of the boy who cried wolf.
"They've changed their minds so many times, we don't really believe anything they say," said one woman who runs a small group home in Baltimore. She did not want to give her name because she worried that DHR would revoke her license.
Chessie lags at least four years behind schedule. Ameejill Whitlock, child welfare director for Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth said providers don't trust that it will work.
Whitlock and Jim McComb, head of Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, an association of private service providers, said the department sends mixed messages about the Chessie schedule. McComb said that as recently as last week, one provider told him that she had gotten two different answers from the same Human Resources worker as to when to expect her December payment.
"The Department of Human Resources had done the poorest possible job of communicating what they are doing," McComb said.