Children still being housed illegally in office building

City Department of Social Services officials are continuing to illegally house foster children at a downtown office building, the director of the state-run agency confirmed yesterday.

Samuel Chambers Jr. said that two teenage girls, one of whom ran away from the facility about 10 p.m. Monday, were staying at the office because they had no place else to go. He said he hadn't been told if the girls had refused placement at a treatment facility or if they had been ejected from one.

Chambers said he knew it was a violation of state law to provide overnight shelter for the children at the office, which is not licensed for child care. But he said caseworkers had no choice but to take in the girls or let them wander the streets.

Two factors led to the office being used as a temporary shelter, he said: service providers who refuse to take in troubled foster children; and foster children who have figured out they can go to the office for free food and other services instead of a more restrictive facility.

"This practice isn't continuing because we want it to," said Chambers, who was recruited by state officials to revamp the beleaguered agency, which serves about 7,000 city children.

On the job for less than a year, Chambers reacted strongly to accusations that he hasn't done enough to fix the problem. He said his department is about to unveil a campaign to recruit foster parents and has plans to reach out to service providers balking at taking in certain children.

"You want to take one of them into your home?" he asked. "Do you want two? Three? Can we work a deal here? What do you want me to do? Shut the door and put them out into the streets? People are being critical, but no one has a solution."

Legal aid attorneys are trying to find the children who stayed at the office in the 300 block of N. Gay St. so that they can figure out how the youths manipulated the system, said Joan P. Little, chief attorney of the Baltimore Child Advocacy Unit at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

This week, a juvenile court judge ordered DSS to release of the names of the children who stayed at the office. The names of foster children are usually guarded to protect their privacy.

Little said it was too early to say how long the process might take or what, if any, legal action might result. "This experience is a new one for us," she said. "I can't predict what will happen."

Advocates, many of whom are just learning of the overnight stays, have been quick to express outrage and shock.

Dr. Michael Bogrov, a psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, compared the youths who stayed at the office to "canaries in a coal mine" because their plight underscores problems in the social services system. Just as the birds warned coal miners of poison gas, advocates say, the children are sending a signal that the system is unstable.

"This situation indicates how overwhelmed the system is," said Bogrov, who works with foster children in his role as head of the children's in-patient unit at Sheppard Pratt. "It's just that the alternatives are so slim and the system is just overwhelmed. You could say that again and again ... until something like this looks good."

Directors of county DSS offices said they sympathized with Chambers because they know the kind of problems he is up against. They said they also deal with service providers who refuse to take mentally and emotionally unstable children even though their contract with the state says they must.

"It's a buyer's market," said Judith Schagrin, assistant director for children's services in Baltimore County. "They make those decisions. They decide who they take and when they take them."

Schagrin and other county officials said they have scant resources to handle foster children after hours. Most said they have one or two foster families in reserve in case of emergencies. It is sheer luck, they said, that they have not been in the same situation as the city.

"The only reason we haven't had the same problem is that we have less children," said Marci Kennai, director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services. "Honestly, I feel for the city because I know it could happen here. Unless we do something aggressive about finding foster families and developing group facilities for the children who need them, this is what we are going to have."