State lawmakers call for committee probe of group home death

Two Maryland lawmakers said Friday they will ask a state Senate committee to explore the death of a 10-year-old disabled foster child who was in the care of a group home.

Another state senator who advocates for people with disabilities said the boy's death at the Laurel-area group home pointed to a shortage of funding and resources to serve vulnerable people in Maryland.

The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that the boy died as the state was in the process of shutting down the home amid concern about staffing problems at the center.

"My first reaction is heartbreak," said state Sen. Ed Reilly, an Anne Arundel County Republican who sits on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which oversees foster care. "We entrust the most vulnerable children to these facilities, and we have high expectations that they will do no harm."

Reilly said he would review the facts of the case but plans to ask his committee to do a full investigation into what went wrong.

Another committee member, Democratic Sen. Karen Montgomery of Montgomery County, said, "I would call for hearings, but it would be conditional on a follow-up that whatever is discovered is acted upon."

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee, said the issues surrounding the death appear to be significant enough for her panel to conduct a review.

The boy, Damaud Martin, died July 2 at the home operated by LifeLine Inc., a state contractor that provides care for disabled children. It recently had been warned it would lose its license for having inadequate staff to meet the "health and safety needs of each child" and other issues, according to state Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein.

State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who is known for his advocacy for people with disabilities, defended state officials for trying to close the center. He said it is challenging to move swiftly when so few providers are available to serve the disability community.

"The state was on the right track. They cited this company for failure to perform," said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. "But if you're going to shut that place down, you need somewhere to put the kids."

And although Middleton was not familiar with the specific circumstances at LifeLine, he said that in general the state has had a series of problems managing the needs of the disabled. "There's myriad problems that could have gone into this: insufficient funding, insufficient foster homes, not paying providers enough."

LifeLine's chief executive, Theresa Martin, wrote to state officials June 5 that she intended to close her company's program for children Sept. 30 because state payments did not cover the costs of care. "The care provided the children cannot be simply dollars and cents, yet without adequate funding it is impossible to provide the quality level of service they deserve," she wrote.

She could not be reached Friday for further comment.

In September, the Board of Public Works approved the state's contract with LifeLine without discussion. A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said Friday she did not have any comment while the investigation continues, and referred questions to the two state agencies that oversaw the home where the boy died.

Montgomery said she has an autistic, adult son in a group home and is attuned to the critical need for adequate staffing not only at the homes, but at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene so that it can perform oversight.

"We need to provide DHMH with enough money to have frequent inspections," she said.

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