State funding freeze threatens services for vulnerable youth

For the second time in recent weeks, The Baltimore Sun has highlighted the Department of Human Resources' "Ready by 21" program as evidence of significant strides in how Maryland is looking at new ways of improving the lives of youth aging out of foster care ("Ready for life," Sept. 4).

As providers of services for children placed by both by DHR and the Department of Juvenile Services, we couldn't help but be struck by one particularly profound statement in The Sun's editorial: "Most of all, what the state's foster care system needs more of [is] the human touch."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves — and that's why we fear that the tight budget of Maryland's foster care system is jeopardizing how our state is able to provide for these most vulnerable children. Four consecutive years of rate cuts and freezes have created an unsustainable situation for private providers. The entirely inadequate 1 percent increase for the current fiscal year will do nothing to reduce the deficits that they are incurring.

We recognize that when DHR or DJS places a child in one of our programs, they are placing Maryland's most vulnerable youth in our care — youth who have frequently been abused or neglected or who have gotten into trouble with the law. Concerted efforts to place youth in the least restrictive settings, which we support when it is safe and appropriate for youth, means that group homes are left to treat and care for the children with the most challenging (and expensive) conditions.

At the same time DHR is providing mentors and financial literacy training for older youth, they have also made a concerted effort to move youth out of group care and treatment family homes, where the "human touch" is provided, into their own apartments simply because they have turned 18. Most families would tell you there is nothing magical about a youth's 18th birthday that suddenly makes them able to safely and responsibly live independently. Increasingly, many youth being placed into independent living programs have unaddressed clinical issues, inadequate academic skills, substance abuse issues, and are ill prepared for the world of work.

Perhaps the department believes in the "sink or swim" philosophy of growing up. We certainly don't, and as a result, independent living providers have been forced to significantly increase the amount of supervision given to youth in their programs, at a cost that is not covered by their rate. Youth who don't succeed in these programs are cycling back into group homes and treatment family homes and are at increased risk of homelessness.

We are going to do everything we can to try to help these youth. But it's time for the state to step up and do its part. By severely limiting funding to the private agencies that provide such critical services, Maryland is running the risk of failing its most vulnerable children. It's time for Gov. Martin O'Malley to end the reimbursement restrictions and help us do our best for this troubled population.

Bruce Anderson and Scott Birdsong

Mr. Anderson is CEO of the San Mar Children's Home in Boonsboro, and Mr. Birdsong is executive director of the GUIDE Program, Inc., in Laurel.

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