ANNAPOLIS – A bill to require the state to keep better track of children in foster care passed the House Friday, four days after a legislative audit revealed that 35 percent of children in foster care might not be attending school.
The bill, which passed 109-24, was debated heavily along party lines; Republicans said the bill was political, more expensive than stated and micromanaged the Department of Human Resources, while Democrats said the estimated $200,000 cost of the bill did not matter and the focus should be on children.
“This isn’t about who to blame,” said Delegate Norman Conway, D-Worcester. “This is about putting in place some accountability.”
A report released Monday by the Office of Legislative Audits covering March 2001 to May 2004, did find some improvements, but showed that about 40 percent of children in foster care did not have records of dental exams; there were no records of meetings with out-of-home providers in 37 percent of cases, and about 34 percent of group home providers did not have evidence of criminal background check and/or review of child abuse registry.
But it was the statistics on school-attendance rates that got the most attention.
Judith Schagrin, assistant director for children’s services at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, said the conclusions drawn from the report were not fair.
A lack of recorded school attendance, does not mean children did not attend school, she said.
“Absolutely records need to be completed,” Schagrin said. “But it’s dramatic to say that 35 percent of children in foster care are not attending school.”
The bill resulted from a report by the Task Force on Child Welfare Accountability released in December 2004 that made 16 recommendations that would require outcome measurements, self assessments and quality assurance.
The bill requires the Department of Human Resources to establish an outcome-based system of accountability for measuring the effectiveness of child welfare services, to develop a plan to reduce caseloads, to improve coordination and clarity of roles among state agencies and to pursue national accreditation of social services, among other measures.
Republicans argued that a computer tracking system designed to help electronically track cases called the Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange will make the bill much more expensive than stated.
“We support the recommendations made by the task force,” said Elyn Jones, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources. “But we do recognize that it would be an enormous challenge to make these changes all at once.”
On the floor Friday, Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, talked about Ciara Jobes, a 15-year-old girl found dead in 2002. She’d been beaten and starved by her legal guardian and her body showed 700 wounds and weighed about 70 pounds.
The Department of Human Resources is the state agency in charge of screening potential guardians for abused and neglected children. McIntosh said the department is supposed to protect abused and neglected children.
Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said he cried for Ciara Jobes, but it was not an incident that should be charged to the Ehrlich administration, even though it occurred two years ago.
“It was a terrible, terrible tragedy,” O’Donnell said. “It happened years ago in the previous administration.”
Ehrlich took office in January 2003.
Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said the focus should stay on the foster children.
“Put politics aside,” he said. “Do this for the child in the year of the child.”