Advocates voice concerns over embattled foster care provider

Advocates for Maryland's abused and neglected youths said Wednesday that the state's second-largest foster care placement company failed the children in its care by allowing the qualification assessments of the homes they live in to lapse.

Ed Kilcullen, director for Maryland's network of Court Appointed Special Advocates, said he is alarmed that the Hyattsville-based Contemporary Family Services did not document annual recertification for some of its homes, including providing up-to-date records such as criminal background clearances. The state has issued a pending sanction against the company that could block new referrals for foster care placement.

"It's really incumbent on every one of us to be concerned," Kilcullen said. "These are children who, through no fault of their own, are involved in a complex legal system. We really want to take whatever steps we can to provide rights that every child is entitled to, specifically to grow up in a safe home."

Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat who represents Cecil and Harford counties, said she has questions for the state Department of Human Resources about its oversight of the company.

"I think there is a lot of explaining to do," James said.

Corey L. Pierce, chief operating officer for the company, said the safety and well-being of the 157 children in its contracted foster homes was never in question. He said the sanction from the Department of Human Resources, which takes effect in mid-February and would temporarily block the company from placing children, stemmed from administrative and management troubles.

"We have done an excellent job caring for over 700 children over the course of the last 10 years," Pierce said. "We have never been sanctioned prior to this."

The company is under investigation by the inspector general at the Department of Human Resources, said Ian Patrick Hines, a department spokesman. The company had been blocked from placing children between April and December.

According to state correspondence with Contemporary Family Services, the Department of Human Resources had raised red flags about the company's significant federal tax liability as well as independent audit findings that company money was used to pay personal expenses for executives. The company reached an agreement in December to pay the IRS $2.8 million in back taxes and fees.

Pierce said the company has taken steps to correct the problems that led to its failure to document annual recertification for some of its homes, as well as the financial problems.

"We work year-round to correct any outstanding issues," Pierce said.

The company is up for its two-year license renewal in March. Beginning in mid-February, if the company doesn't challenge the sanction in Administrative Law Court, Contemporary Family Services will be unable to place new children with the 232 parents in its network for at least 60 days while the state evaluates whether the company has an acceptable plan to ensure that all of its homes are recertified.

The certification for a foster parent is based, in part, on a series of documents, including background checks, an up-to-date list of adults who live in the home, first-aid training and insurance coverage, to show that a parent is qualified.

James said Maryland has made strides in improving the lives of foster children and that she intends to ask the Department of Human Resources for more information on Contemporary Family Services at a House budget hearing Monday.

She said she is especially concerned about the death Jan. 25 of a child in one of the company's contracted foster homes in Glen Burnie.

The Department of Human Resources confirmed that it is reviewing the case, as it does any time a foster child dies, but the death was not related to the sanction, according to an agency spokesman. Company officials say the 3-year-old boy died after a severe asthma attack and that the child's death has nothing to do with the firm's troubles with the state.

Anne Arundel County Police are continuing to investigate but have said a preliminary investigation indicated that the death was not suspicious.

Theodore Dallas, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said the state's actions in response to violations at Contemporary Family Services show the system works.

"First and foremost, everything we do has to be guided by the children involved and their overall well-being," Dallas said.

Shelley Tinney, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, said she is confident that the children in Contemporary Family Services' contracted homes are safe.

Contemporary Family Services is a member of Tinney's association, and Pierce is vice president of the association's board.

Regardless of the pending sanction, Tinney said, "Nothing they did or didn't do constitutes a safety issue."

Tinney said the state has plenty of oversight over the homes where foster children are placed, to the point in some cases that the oversight is burdensome.

Melissa Rock, child welfare director for the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, said she is pleased with the state's intervention at Contemporary Family Services. Up-to-date licensing and certification for foster homes are critically important to ensure children's safety, she said.

Any action the state takes should depend on the seriousness of concerns for the safety of foster children, she said. For instance, financial problems could be troublesome but would not necessarily put their safety in jeopardy, she said.

"It sounds like the state is taking all of the right steps," Rock said. "I don't think it would be in the best interest of the children to have a knee-jerk reaction."

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