Report argues DSS puts city children at risk

Noting last year's torture death of Ciara Jobes, a report filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore asserts that the city's Department of Social Services is "sitting on a time bomb" and is putting hundreds of supervised children at risk because of a lax approach and overburdened caseworkers.

The report, filed by lawyers representing children in a class action lawsuit dating back almost two decades, criticized social service workers for failing to complete criminal background checks on many foster parents and for trying to "intimidate and coerce" caregivers into adopting children.

"We are very concerned about the problems and hope our report will encourage the [department] to take the necessary steps," said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a lawyer who represents children in state care and one of the authors of the report.

The report details the high-profile case of Ciara Jobes, 15, who was starved and tortured to death last year. The girl's legal guardian has been charged in her death.

"Ciara's case, as reported by The Sun, cannot be dismissed as an aberration," said the report. "Her case was exposed only because she was tortured, sexually abused and savagely killed. There is ample reason to fear that other children could be in danger as well."

Ciara's guardian, Satrina Roberts, is charged with first-degree murder. She is accused of denying Ciara food and locking her in an unfurnished, unheated room for months, forcing her to use a hole in the wall as a toilet.

"The tragic case of Ciara Jobes appears to illustrate the extreme risks posed by the high caseloads and lack of safety precautions for these homes," the report said.

The filing in federal court stems from a far-reaching 1984 case in which lawyers representing all children in the care of the state settled a suit against then-Department of Human Resources Secretary Ruth Massinga. The case, L.J. vs. Massinga, was settled in 1988 with child welfare workers agreeing to a set of standards in an effort to better protect children.

A condition of the settlement requires state social service officials to file a status report in federal court every six months. Mirviss' report - filed last week in response to one of the department's recent status reports - says that the state is in violation of the 1988 court order.

State Department of Human Resources spokesman Norris West said the report deals with a study that was completed before DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe took office.

"We have new leadership in place, and that leadership is working hard and aggressively to reform the child welfare system in Baltimore," West said. "The report addresses a lot of issues we have concerns about. We want to make sure that we work aggressively to root out those problems and to really get a handle on some of those issues."

He said the agency has a plan to reform Baltimore child welfare that he will release soon.

"We're not talking about a lot of fluff," West said. "This will be a plan with a lot of meat on the bones."

Among the violations identified in Mirviss' report:

Caseloads of foster-home workers are "extraordinarily high" --- 67 per worker. The limit is set at 40 per worker.

No record exists of criminal background checks being performed in more than 25 percent of cases in which a child is placed with a relative and 22 percent of all foster homes. Background checks are required for every home. "This represents an egregious, systematic violation," according to the report.

Although case workers are required to visit children in foster care at least once a month, 22 percent of foster children did not get a visit during a three-month period last year.

There is an "acute" shortage of foster homes for teen-agers. At least five teens spent their days at DSS offices and their nights in "diverse placements."

"Given the extremely high foster home caseloads and the lack of home visits by foster home workers and foster care workers ... hundreds of children potentially are at risk," said the report, filed in federal court Friday. "BCDSS is sitting on a time bomb."

Mirviss' report stated that the reason he filed the document in court is because he sent several letters to the Department of Human Resources, but did not get a satisfactory response.

The report also detailed the cases of several children who were not close to death but who were mistreated by the child welfare system.

One child was starved by his foster mother by being given only a cup of soup at night. Another was a mentally disabled boy sent to a group home for delinquent youth, where he was sexually assaulted.

Data in the report came from interviews conducted with children's lawyers, as well as the state's statistics from a study conducted by the Department of Human Resources last year.

The 1984 case that is at the root of the report grew out of the experiences of L.J., 10, who was one of several children brutalized and not given proper medical attention while in foster care for six years. He was beaten until he had scars on "virtually every part of his body including the legs, face, arms, chest, abdominal area, back and buttocks."

L.J. stayed with a foster mother who was admitted to a hospital for alcohol-related problems 41 times.

The Department of Social Services is also under scrutiny by Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner, who plans to begin a task force in an effort to reduce child abuse in the city.

Beilenson is chairman of the Child Fatality Review Board, a group that meets twice a month to review the circumstances surrounding children who are killed in Baltimore.

"Serving as chair of the Child Fatality Review Board, it became very clear that a substantial number of the unexpected deaths of young people in our city are related in some way to DSS," Beilenson said. "These deaths are clearly the tip of the iceberg in the city. There are probably hundreds of abuses that are not fatal."

Beilenson said the task force will meet twice before the end of the year and come up with recommendations of how the child welfare system can better protect children.

He echoed assertions in Mirviss' report, which said that "basic safety precautions have fallen by the wayside."