ANNAPOLIS – Spurred by dramatic stories of the state’s failure to protect abused and neglected children, the Maryland House has voted to boost the number of child welfare workers from 1,557 to more than 1,900.
The House also called for stricter standards for new child welfare workers, a 22 percent raise for the new hires and an end to the extended use of contractual workers, currently 20 percent of the workforce.
It passed the House on a 132-0 vote Saturday and now heads to the Senate.
“We think it is the most important thing the General Assembly has done in recent years to improve the lives of maltreated children,” said Jann Jackson of Advocates for Youth and Children. “(Workforce quality) is one of those fundamental issues — unless we address it, no amount of child welfare reform will be successful.”
The bill is expected to cost $4.4 million in the first year, $3.1 million of which would come from the federal government.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore and the primary sponsor of the bill, noted that the state is already spending $7 million a month on children in care. High turnover rates of caseworkers only lengthen the children’s time in state care and drive up costs needlessly, she said.
“Every time there is another case manager that comes in, they kind of flex their muscles and make decisions,” said McIntosh.
While that costs the state millions, she said, “It costs the child something that we can’t even put a price tag on, which is the real issue here.
“When you hear about a child in foster care whose first year-and-a-half of life is spent in five different homes, you can just imagine that that child’s history is being written for him or her,” McIntosh said.
Under the bill, the Department of Human Resources would be required to develop a plan by Dec. 31 for recruitment, training and retention of child welfare workers. The plan would take effect Jan. 1, 1999.
After that date, newly hired caseworkers would need to pass competency tests and have to have advanced degrees in social work or a related field. Currently, entry-level workers need only a bachelor’s degree, and no specific background in child development or family dynamics is required.
Current caseworkers could keep their jobs, without meeting the stricter standards, if they are doing a satisfactory job.
The bill would also end the practice of hiring contractual workers, except in emergencies to keep the caseload beneath national child welfare guidelines.
Pay for new entry-level hires would be boosted by 22 percent over today’s pay, which begins at $20,403.
But the bill does not include raises for current permanent workers, which will be a problem if the state wants to fill the new slots and reduce worker turnover, warns Charles Cooper of the state’s Foster Care Review Board.
In Baltimore City, which has the highest caseload of children in care, Cooper estimated caseworker turnover at 65 percent.
McIntosh said the bill has been in the works for years. But it took recent attention-grabbing cases to spotlight the problem of overworked and often poorly trained caseworkers, she said.
Jackson said the bill is the first legislative victory for the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children, formed by child advocacy groups in 1996. The bill was inspired by last year’s state-sponsored analysis from the Child Welfare League of America, which recommended over 100 ways that services for Maryland children should be improved or changed.
Meanwhile, advocates said they will continue to push for a more modest bill backed by Gov. Parris Glendening to hire 35 entry-level caseworkers at the start of the fiscal year. Glendening has included $800,000 in his fiscal 1999 budget for those positions.