State to close 23 group homes

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Department of Human Resources sent letters to 23 group home providers Monday informing them that their contracts will not be renewed in July, a move the state agency said will help reduce an oversupply of beds for foster children.

DHR officials say there are about twice as many slots in Maryland group homes as there are children who need them. But some of the smaller group home providers say they fear the potential closures will disproportionately hit their businesses while keeping larger group homes open.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, whose agency oversees social services, said low-performing group homes, regardless of size, are the ones targeted. Fourteen other group homes will see a decrease in number of beds.

"We told [providers] we're going to focus on quality. We created an internal report card to evaluate performance," Donald said. "That's what you do when you have more supply than demand. You can be selective."

About 80 kids will be affected by the nonrenewals. The children will be moved to other group homes, placed with foster families or returned to biological relatives, DHR officials said. Donald said the philosophy is in line with the department's two-year-old "Place Matters" initiative, which looks to put children with permanent families.

When new contracts are given July 1, the number of group homes will number about 110.

Some group home providers say the push to put children in foster homes will ultimately hurt kids. They say group homes provide children structure, mandatory medical appointments and 24-hour supervision.

One provider, who runs a group home with about 10 beds, questioned the criteria DHR used in deciding which group homes to eliminate.

"It's not going to be a fair process of elimination," said the woman, who did not want to give her name because she worried that DHR would revoke her license. "We're competing for business with Woodbourne, Catholic Charities and other homes that are larger. Yeah, the state graded everybody on a report card, but the providers didn't get a chance to see what grade we got."

Jim McComb, head of Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, an association of private service providers, agreed that the state has too many group homes. But McComb also questioned the state's grading system and said he has concerns about the staffs of group homes whose contracts will not be renewed.

He also wondered about the timing.

"We were hoping it would be done with more planning. This is being done very fast," McComb said. "You got somebody working in a group home and if they're really caring, then there are two losses. The person who lost his job and the kid's relationship to that person. But you don't keep a group home open for people to have a job."

Donald said she expects providers to do the "right thing" and honor their contracts even if they are not being renewed. "I'm sure they'll realize they're in the business to help children," she said.

Walter McNeil, founder of Bert's Place, a five-bed group home in West Baltimore that serves teenage boys, said providers have known of the department's desire to move away from group homes for months. McNeil said he was initially worried about the "Place Matters" initiative but that his conversations with Donald left him reassured.

"I understand the premise of it, and I agree that kids should be in a family environment," McNeil said.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill that requires DHR and the Department of Juvenile Services to license a new group home only when it responds to a statement of need issued by either of the agencies. Since October, DHR has not issued any licenses to new group home providers. Previously, DHR and DJS were required to grant a license to any new group home as long as it met minimum standards, leading to the glut, Donald said.

When the contracts expire at the end of June, the number of beds will be reduced by more than 300, to 1,707.

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