City of Lost Kids
A new director tries to fix Baltimore’s broken child-welfare system
By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/10/2009
The first of a two-part series
Baltimore City’s foster-care system is messed up. That’s not exactly news. But it turns out that it’s not just messed up in the ways you’d expect, but in ways that come as a surprise, even in a city as jaded as ours. Yes, group homes can be bad places where kids are warehoused rather than cared for. Yes, kids who have come to the attention of children’s welfare services end up in jail or even dead due to neglect, abuse, and sometimes just the violence of our city streets. But did you know that there are people who have been approved to be foster parents who have been waiting for months and sometimes years to get a child in their home? Or that at this time last year, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS) didn’t necessarily know if all the kids under its care had gotten the medical attention they needed, or even where all those kids were?
Here’s another surprising thing: The first person to admit how messed up DSS has been–and, in some ways, still is–is its leader, Molly McGrath. “It doesn’t have a glowing reputation for good reason,” McGrath says. “I think it’s fair to say that DSS hasn’t really been shouldering its weight.”
When she became director last September, McGrath was confronted by a department where some employees didn’t have desks or basic office supplies, where data collection was ineffective, where caseloads varied widely from worker to worker, and where kids under DSS care could spend their entire childhoods shuffled from placement to placement. There was a lot to do, from making an agency that has been under a federal court order to improve since the ’80s function efficiently to changing the culture to a child-focused model, which begs the question: What was the agency focused on before?
Over the last several months, City Paper was granted extensive access to the Department of Social Services as it worked its way through some of these changes. Successes were evident, as were failures. Some DSS employees worked their hearts out for kids and others fell asleep at training sessions. DSS’ ongoing attempt to turn the boat around will be examined in two parts. This week’s story will focus on the state of the department and the people trying to change it. Next week, we’ll follow a program to move teenagers from group homes into families through the highs and lows of implementation.
It would be easy to underestimate Molly McGrath. She’s a petite, almost elfin woman with short, white-blond hair who could as easily be in her 20s as her actual 42 years.
She speaks with an indistinct twang, a result of either her childhood in North Carolina or her time working in the Appalachian Mountains. And she spends her free time playing guitar and singing in a rock band called the Unit Block. Nothing about her screams “force to be reckoned with,” but as soon as McGrath starts talking about child welfare, it becomes clear that she is serious about helping kids and won’t let anything get in her way.
“It is, in fact, the case across the country–child welfare’s not working,” she says, sitting at a table in her East Baltimore office during one of several interviews for this story. “I’m not looking at anyone else and saying it’s not working. I’m looking right here in the mirror and saying the things we’ve tried are not working.”
McGrath is relatively new to Baltimore, but she has some 20 years of social-work experience under her belt in West Virginia and Chicago. She also spent a year in Baltimore, as a fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and worked for Brenda Donald at Washington D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency. When Donald was tapped by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2007 to be the secretary of the state Department of Human Resources (DHR), which oversees the child welfare jurisdictions in the state, she remembered McGrath and brought her in as chief operating officer of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, which handles child welfare for the city, along with homeless services, welfare, and vulnerable adult care, among other things.
Donald was well aware of the difficulties facing DHR, and especially Baltimore City DSS, which is home to 60 percent of the kids in child welfare in the state.
“We needed someone who was dynamic, who was totally passionate about this work, who was smart and willing to work around the clock,” Donald says. “Molly fits all of those requirements.”
When Sam Chambers, the previous director of DSS, stepped down in January 2008, Donald gave McGrath the top job. It wasn’t an obvious choice, Donald says. McGrath wasn’t from Maryland and she is white, whereas most of DSS’ employees and clients are black. “But I knew what we needed for Baltimore City, and I just knew from my experience with her and in my gut that she was the right person,” Donald says. “I knew Molly would come in and move this agency, and she really has. It’s a lot to overcome, but she doesn’t scare easily.”
No one who scared easily would be able to helm DSS. Chambers stepped down after an investigation into the death of 2-year-old Bryanna Harris, who was beaten and had ingested her mother’s methadone.Â Investigators found that DSS had failed to keep the child safe, despite the fact that Bryanna’s two older sisters had been removed from the home due to abuse and there had been several complaints that the toddler was being neglected. Chambers was appointed in 2004, after an epic pissing match between Gov. Robert Ehrlich and then-Mayor Martin O’Malley over who got to appoint the head of city DSS–O’Malley won. The political fray overshadowed persistent problems in the agency.
A class-action suit was brought against Baltimore City DSS in 1984, spurred by the discovery that a boy had been placed in a foster home with an abusive alcoholic. Four years later, a federal court approved a consent decree for the overhaul of DSS, but changes were slow to come and children continued to suffer. You don’t have to go back even a decade to find more DSS horror stories than there is room to print here.
Take 2002 as an example. In that year alone, four deaths of children DSS was ostensibly caring for hit the news. Fourteen-year-old Jennifer McLaurin hung herself with a scarf in a city group home. It was her fifth suicide attempt in 10 months according to a Washington Post article at the time. David Carr, a two-month-old, was beaten to death by his mother, who had a previous conviction for breaking both the arms and legs of another infant son and was supposed to be monitored by DSS. Five-year-old Travon Morris’ mother put him in a bath of scalding water. The boy had been removed from the home by DSS because of abuse before, but was returned to his mother. And Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old girl, was tortured and starved to death after a woman who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder was granted guardianship over her.
Besides fatalities, which have persisted over the years, there have been allegations of all kinds of abuses, including foster children being assigned to social workers that no longer worked for the agency, caseloads as much as four times the national standard of 15 cases per worker, children sleeping in cars or agency offices because placement workers didn’t know where else to put them, and group homes where the staff sold drugs, stole from the children, used funds allocated for the kids to finance vacations for themselves, and neglected and abused children who had been placed there to escape those very circumstances.
If there was a poster child for what was wrong with DSS–a child that survived, that is–it could easily be Jeff. A tall young man with a solid build, Jeff doesn’t smile easily. He may not smile at all. He has lived through the system’s failures and has one simple thing to say about it: “The system ain’t for no children, period.”
Jeff’s mother and father struggled with drug addiction, and he ended up living with his grandmother. She decided Jeff was dangerous after he got into a fight with his cousin–Jeff was 6 years old at the time–the police handcuffed him and took him away. Jeff is such an imposing figure at 19, even as he sits on a couch talking between bites of wafer cookie, it’s hard to imagine how small and vulnerable he must have been then. But he remembers it clearly.
“I was eating some cheese and peanut butter crackers, watching Nickelodeon, minding my own damn business in the little child zone,” he recalls, when his cousin grabbed his crackers and threw them in the trash. He got into it with his cousin, who was about 12 years old, and his grandmother called the police. “She carried it like I was a threat. I didn’t injure nobody. How could I injure anybody from not even 4 feet tall? I was a little boy–what harm could I do?” he asks. It’s clear that even after 13 years it still hurts. “I would have felt better if she gave me a spanking or punished me for a long time,” he says. “I could have dealt with that.”
Instead, Jeff says his grandmother had him taken away. He spent the rest of his childhood bouncing around between hospitals, treatment facilities, group homes, and lockup. He says he was never asked where he wanted to go. He was just moved from place to place, spending time in group homes with little supervision and experiencing nothing like a family connection. He often struggled to get the homes to buy him clothes, had money and belongings stolen from him, and fought with other kids. “Ain’t nobody raise me through all these years. I raised myself,” Jeff says.
Jeff’s story isn’t unusual. When McGrath took over DSS, it had a reputation for allowing kids to grow up in group homes with little oversight. From Donald, she received orders to change that. The state started a program called Place Matters, based on the philosophy that every child deserves a family. But before McGrath could change the philosophy of how DSS cared for kids, she had to fix the mechanisms that would allow it to do that.
“So much of what we’ve done in the past year in DSS is change our business practices,” McGrath says. “I don’t mean to sound cold and harsh about that, because I’m not filling pot holes. Our job is in the care of human beings who really, desperately need something. But what we noticed in observing the system is the business practices were very arcane, and it was very disorganized.” Ideological changes would have to wait until every case worker for a child had a desk, a computer, and a phone.
The agency had a massive backlog of child-safety investigations. It was understaffed, and staffers were working on boutique projects that never got off the ground or inessential administrative duties when children’s basic needs weren’t being addressed. Caseloads varied widely from worker to worker, overburdening some, while others didn’t pull their weight.
So DSS increased staffing, tackled the backlog, and created a system for assigning kids to case workers with the goal of distributing the work evenly and in accordance with national guidelines of 15 cases per worker. McGrath also made sure that every case worker had a supervisor to report to so that no decisions about a child’s welfare were made in isolation.
She also streamlined the process for requisitioning office supplies. “I think that really helped morale, because it can’t be so hard to get a pencil,” McGrath says. “It’s funny, but those kind of little things drive you nuts when you’re really trying to get a kid safe and you think, ‘God the Xerox machine doesn’t work.’”
Perhaps the most important change has been the focus on data collection. The Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange (CHESSIE) system, which enables jurisdictions to track child-welfare cases across the state, was implemented in 2006, but according to McGrath, compliance was lackluster, making it difficult to compile information about the kids they serve. “A year ago, if a kid hadn’t been to the doctor, I probably wouldn’t have known it, or I might have known it six months later. Now, I know it in two days,” McGrath says. “And I know where everyone of my kids are. I couldn’t say that a year and a half ago.”
With basic practices in place, McGrath had to figure out how to change the ideology of the agency. There were two core ideas that needed to be instilled: 1) that children should be in families, and 2) that children should have a say in what happens to them. It seems simple, but it was a major shift, and one that still hasn’t been totally successful to date.
According to the Department of Human Resources’ Donald, this shift is one that is being made across the country in child welfare. Twenty years ago, the prevailing philosophy was that children needed to be rescued from their awful parents, but now agencies are looking to preserve families by providing the adult members with services such as drug treatment and counseling before things get so bad that a child has to be removed.
“If we can invest resources that we now spend to have kids in foster care to help stabilize their families so that they can take care of their own kids, that would be better for the kids, better for the families, and better for the child-welfare system,” Donald says. “The system’s past failures are not due to lack of resources. They really are not. And that definitely includes Baltimore City.” Instead, she says resources have been poorly allocated. It is cheaper to provide services for families than to house kids in group homes, which can cost the system $72,000 a year per child.
In the past, critics such as former city Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson have worried about focusing too much on keeping families together, as the services and oversight have not been in place to keep those children safe; the majority of child welfare homicides in recent years have been children murdered by a parent. But a 2007 study funded by the National Science Foundation found that even with only minimal services, children left in troubled families fared better than children in foster care. Forty-four percent of kids in foster care were arrested at least once according to the study, compared to only 14 percent of kids in homes with neglect and abuse. Children who went through foster care were also more likely to become pregnant as teens and less likely to be employed.
McGrath agrees wholeheartedly with focusing on keeping families together. “If you really want to mess a kid up, put him in foster care–not because foster care is bad, but because it’s unnatural,” McGrath says. “Kids are supposed to be with families–they’re supposed to be with their own families. Putting a kid in foster care breaks the heart of the family, it breaks the heart of the kid, and I’ll tell you 100 percent of the children in foster care want to go home.”
If a child must be removed from the home, under Donald’s Place Matters initiative, the emphasis is on finding a family placement for that child. “The thing about families is everybody gets one,” McGrath explains. “That just seems so obvious to me. It’s not obvious to the system. It’s not how the system’s been run.”
That is partially because there was no formalized system for placing kids. When a child came into DSS’ care, someone at the agency ended up scrambling to find a place to put that child, and often the most expedient place was a group home. Now, in order to place a child 13 or older in a group home, workers have to convince their superiors that that is the best option. (Children 12 and under are only placed in group homes in extreme cases.)
“The only way you can put a small child in a group home is to go through me,” says DSS Assistant Director David Thompson Jr., and generally the answer is no. Instead, McGrath and her staff created a system to make it easier for workers to find family homes for kids. It wasn’t rocket science. It was simply a matter of creating a searchable database of foster homes with vacancies and simple criteria for how to choose one, based on how close the home is to where the child currently lives and foster parents’ age and sex preference.
“Now it is easier to send a kid to a family home [than a group home], and you know what happens?” Thompson asks with a laugh. “Kids go to families.” This also helped fix another problem, one that McGrath hadn’t even realized existed until a forum with foster parents in Feb. 18 of this year. Numerous people at the meeting complained that they had been approved as foster parents for months without getting a child or even hearing from the agency. The increased number of kids going to foster homes and the criteria-based system for placements decreases the likelihood that certain families are inundated with kids while others wait for one.
Maryland has stepped up its recruitment of foster families, and Baltimore now has about 80 percent of the kids in the DSS care placed in families, the highest percentage of any jurisdiction in the state. This year the state Department of Human Resources (DHR) found that it had so many empty group home beds that it was able to downsize the number of group homes it contracts with by 23 (down from 134). Donald says the group homes were all judged on specific criteria and given a report card, and the homes with lowest grades were not renewed. With fewer group homes, Donald says, they are able to be more selective, a needed step as there have been so many reports of mistreatment in area group homes.
Some group-home providers, perhaps understandably, feel that the process was not sufficiently transparent. DHR refuses to release the names of the group homes that were not renewed, but in a Baltimore Sun article following the announcement, a provider who wished to remain anonymous felt the process was unfair, saying, “Yeah, the state graded everybody on a report card, but the providers didn’t get a chance to see what grade we got.” Some group home providers also worry that some kids need the kind of care that can only be provided in a regimented group home, and some long-time case workers agree, having watched their charges bounce from foster home to foster home only to stabilize in a group home. But Donald, McGrath, Thompson, and every DSS client contacted for this article feel the new policy is best. Â “I have an obligation to do my best work to help these kids be ready to be just regular folk when they turn 21 [and age out of the system],” McGrath says, “and I think in America, the way we learn to be regular folk is to live with a family.”
Jeff would have liked that opportunity. He has spent most of his life in group homes and treatment facilities. He says the experience can make your “heart turn cold.
“I didn’t care about nobody but me. I didn’t trust nobody,” Jeff says. “I always wanted to be in a foster family because I wanted to be loved, you feel me? I didn’t want to feel like I’m not wanted.”
But no one ever asked Jeff where he wanted to live: “They say that you going to be here, you going to remain here unless you get kicked out.” It didn’t provide a lot of incentive to make a placement work. One of the hallmarks of DSS’ new guard is getting the kids’ input for all major decisions made on their behalf. They are implementing team decision-making meetings in which the child, parent, foster parents, case workers, therapists, lawyers, and anyone else who is involved in the child’s life can get together to make decisions with the child instead of for the child. By learning how to make decisions in their own best interests, the kids not only have a better chance of finding permanent nurturing placements, but they also learn an important life skill.
Kids who spend much of their lives in foster care “end up in the morgue, they end up incarcerated, or they end up having kids that I take custody of,” McGrath says. “And I think maybe that’s because we made all the decisions for them and they didn’t learn how to maneuver in the world.”
Letting children call some of the shots worries some case workers. Bernadette Rogers has been with DSS for eight years. She is passionate about her clients and helping them navigate the system, but she worries about what she sees as the new agency administration’s attempt to put the children in charge. “We can’t cater to children, because children will start dictating to us what they will and will not do, and that becomes a very dangerous road to go down,” Rogers says. She’s afraid that some of the kids won’t make good decisions about where they should live and will want to move every time they don’t get their way.
Rogers says that she and other workers, especially those who have been in the agency a long time, resent someone who doesn’t know their kids coming in and “telling me that what I was doing before wasn’t good enough. That does frustrate me, because you know nothing about my clients. You don’t know the issues that they’re in except for what you read, but you’ve never come to me and asked me what’s going on with my case.”
Thompson thinks that concerns like Rogers’ are mostly a matter of communication. “People confuse family-centered work as you do whatever the family says,” he notes. “That’s not what we’re saying at all. We’re saying they get a say-so in it.”
The point of the team decision-making meetings is to move the kids less. These meetings allow concerns to be addressed, rules to be agreed upon, and services to be put in place before anyone packs a bag.
Thompson is not surprised that change has been hard for some of the case workers. “I’m a [case] worker fan,” he says. “I don’t think these guys get enough credit. These guys work very hard,” often staying until late at night and being available to their clients whenever they are needed. Not only has the system worked them to the bone, but, like the kids they serve, many have lost hope that the system can or will change. The only way to combat that, Thompson says, is through action. “In most places you get people to buy in, and then you do it,” he says. “Here it’s the opposite. You get people to do it, and they buy in afterwards.”
For Steven Youngblood, buying in wasn’t a problem. He was a case worker for 11 years before becoming a team decision-making facilitator. The child and family focused model is one he has long believed in. “I always did what I had to for my kids, but now there’s actual support for it,” Youngblood says. He has seen firsthand how important it is to really listen to kids. He saw it with one of his first clients, an angry 6-year-old boy who’d been thrown out of his grandmother’s house.
Jeff remembers the first time he met Youngblood, who came to Jeff’s school to introduce himself. “I said, ‘I don’t want no white boy as my [case] worker,’” Jeff recalls.
But over the years they formed a strong bond: “The only thing that kept me from losing my head completely was [Youngblood]. Mr. Steve was there. He didn’t demand me to be a certain way like everybody else.” Jeff sits on DSS’ Youth Advisory Board, and is set to graduate from high school next year. He credits Youngblood with keeping him on the right path and making him feel truly cared about.
Still, even with the changes that have been made, Jeff has little faith that the foster-care system can be a positive place for children. When asked if people at DSS now ask his opinion on decisions, he replies, “They ask me. But that don’t mean it’s going to change.”
McGrath is determined to prove to him and the other children in the system that it will change. “Doing better is not negotiable.”