ANNAPOLIS- The Maryland Department of Human Resources says it plans to re-work the state’s child welfare program over the next several months to correct system flaws pointed out in recent state and federal reports.
“Is the child welfare system where it ought to be? Probably not,” said Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland, at a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday. O’Donnell said he is very confident that the department’s plan will bring needed improvements.
But child advocates disagree, arguing that the plan does not go far enough.
“The plan has no clothes,” Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said in an interview. “It’s improving a workforce that doesn’t exist. You have to have the resources to implement their plans.”
State officials have been put on the defensive by a damning state legislative audit in December and a 2004 federal Child and Family Services report, along with claims by child welfare advocates that 11 of 28 children who died of abuse in Maryland in the last year were known to the department.
The Tuesday hearing was the second time in as many weeks that department officials appeared before legislators to explain how they plan to increase staff, streamline paperwork, and improve the performance of caseworkers. Among the major problems found were foster children repeatedly shuffled from one home to another, repeat instances of maltreatment and caseworkers missing scheduled monthly face-to-face appointments with children.
Department officials are banking on the success of the new Maryland Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange network – abbreviated MD CHESSIE – for integrating many of their child welfare services between local departments.
CHESSIE is designed to provide caseworkers with a central online hub that allows them to check the background of a case, view a referral and enter investigation information all in one place, avoiding much of the time-consuming paperwork associated with casework.
“The new system will allow us, almost instantaneously, to pull up background information on a child,” Elyn Jones, the department’s deputy communications director said in an interview. “We are very, very excited.”
She said the system should be up and running in all county departments by November.
The Appropriations Committee chairman, Delegate Norman Conway, D-Lower Shore, congratulated the department on finally getting the networking initiative on track after “60 million-plus” in costs and 11 years of development.
The department’s chief information officer, Kirk Groethe, warned that CHESSIE will not solve everything, however, as 2,800 caseworkers still have to deal with some 30,000 referrals around the state.
“Ensuring the accuracy of the data is a training issue,” he said.
To make sure that staff members are trained in handling information in the new system, the department is set to start what it calls its child welfare training academy in March, a “hands-on” program for both current and incoming employees.
“It’s like child welfare 101,” said Social Services Administration Acting Director Rebecca Bridgett.
She said that a workgroup is putting together a new recruitment plan and that the department is re-instituting its tuition assistance program to help fill needed staff positions. Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe told legislators last week that the department needs to hire around 120 new caseworkers statewide.
As the department develops systems to communicate between its departments, it plans also to increase communication with local non-profit and community organizations that provide services like mental health and medical treatment.
“We’ve actually got to build and develop resource networks in the state to provide access to these services,” said Cathy Mols, director of the Talbot County Department of Social Services.
Part of the program improvement plan calls for the development of a statewide resource directory to help make staffers aware of help available in their community.
Child welfare advocates have criticized the department’s plans, saying that the changes proposed are simply designed to avoid spending more money.
“Our concern from the very beginning . . . was that [the plan] was written to avoid any additional expenditure,” said Heisner.
Charlie Cooper, chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children, said he wants to see more quantifiable goals for placement and caseload ratios set out by the department’s plan.
“It really gives more emphasis to symptoms than root causes,” he said, pointing out that the average stay for a child in foster care in the state is about 32 months.
Department Communications Director Norris P. West denied that the plan is “funding-neutral,” saying that the governor’s fiscal 2007 budget increases spending on child welfare by 12.8 percent.
“They’re just missing the point,” he said. “The point isn’t how much money you spend, it’s how you do your job.”
Conway told department officials that their plan shows progress, but this is not the complete solution. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re on the corner,” he said. “I think we may be on a wide curve.”