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November 7, 2007 permalink
The Baltimore Sun reports on the experience of Bill Grimm, who sued the state of Maryland and forced them to implement improvements to their foster care system. Three decades later the system is just as bad.
Among families victimized by the foster care system, the most popular suggestion for reform is a class-action lawsuit. The Grimm case shows the futility of achieving reform through the courts. As long as money gushes into the foster care agencies for each child they take, they will find ways to corrupt the police, courts, doctors and group homes to keep the money flowing. The system can only be cured when legislatures get the courage to cut off the money supply.
Decades later, and foster kids still suffer
Jean Marbella, November 6, 2007
Bill Grimm was in his mid-30s when he filed a civil rights lawsuit in 1984, charging widespread mistreatment of children in foster care in Baltimore. The suit was settled four years later with the state agreeing to vast, systemwide improvements, and Grimm went off to a California-based national advocacy group to fight similar battles elsewhere, thinking his work was done in Maryland.
Well, not so fast.
Today, Grimm is 58. Suits he has filed against other states have been tried and resolved. He can cite foster care reforms he's helped push in states from Washington to Utah to California. He's even seen one governor he tangled with in Arkansas go on to become president, and now, that governor's wife is running for that office as well.
And how about back in Maryland, the first state in which he tried to help these most vulnerable children, taken from their own homes because of abuse or neglect and at the mercy of the state to place them in safe homes?
"Virtually every aspect of the system is deficient," Grimm said flatly when I reached him yesterday at his office at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.
As Lynn Anderson reports in The Sun today, lawyers for the children went to federal court yesterday to detail - in more than 400 sometimes-heartbreaking pages - how the state continues to fail foster kids. Some are sent to homes where they are abused. Others are bounced from facility to facility. Caseworkers aren't always visiting them monthly, as required, to monitor their well-being. Even the basics - like getting them medical and dental care, or enrolling them in school - prove a challenge for the state and city social services agencies.
In other words, some of the same problems that prompted his lawsuit in 1984 remain, some of the same problems that the state pledged to remedy in the 1988 consent decree that settled the suit.
"We can't expect an agency to change overnight," Grimm said.
Or two decades, for that matter.
"It's amazing these things are still going on," he said.
Grimm was called back to Maryland last summer - he grew up in Kensington and got his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Maryland - to help with what he calls "intense" negotiations with the state to bring this long-running issue, finally, to true resolution.
"That went nowhere," he said.
Grimm's praise for the lawyers keeping the fight going - including Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who worked with Grimm at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau to file the initial lawsuit and now is a partner at Venable, and Rhonda Lipkin, of the Public Justice Center - is matched only by his disdain for the agencies and political leaders who have failed to live up to the consent decree that mandated reform.
"There's a lack of sustained will to make change happen," he said. "How many administrations have come and gone and paid lip service to the consent decree?"
Grimm said that the occasional death of a child in foster care will spark outrage and a flurry of promises to fix the system. But, eventually, even those tragic events fade and everyone moves on - because foster children are far from the most powerful of constituencies.
"Where's the political fallout? These kids do not vote. Their parents probably do not vote. These people are from poor neighborhoods. They have no lobbyists," Grimm said. "Frankly, it's pretty easy for politicians to push this aside, except for the occasional sound bite - 'these most needy of children.'"
The problems are deep and beyond the quick fix, Grimm said: Social workers can have too many cases to juggle, kids are often sent to live in group homes rather than with a family, there aren't enough people willing to be foster parents.
"There's a long-standing neglect of foster parents. They are not being supported," he said. "And they're your best recruiters of other foster parents, so if they're not getting the support they need, they're not bringing in new people."
It baffles him that Baltimore's social service agencies have not been able to tap into the city's wealth of great medical and mental health institutions for help. "We've litigated cases in rural areas of Nevada where there were no mental health services, or even medical services," Grimm said. "For an urban area not to be able to pull together the resources to support these children - it's inexcusable. Baltimore should be an example for the nation."
While change hasn't come as quickly as he imagined when he first negotiated the consent decree, he doesn't regret filing the suit. And he still has hope, although maybe not as much as he started out with.
"There are other systems that have made improvements," he said. "They're not perfect; there are no perfect systems. But it's not impossible."
Source: Baltimore Sun
City's foster care is faulted
Monitors' lawsuit contends Md., Baltimore not carrying out reforms ordered in 1988
By Lynn Anderson
November 6, 2007
Baltimore foster children are still being sheltered at a state office building and still missing medical and dental appointments, according to lawyers charged with monitoring a long-standing court decree on care for these children.
In a more than 400-page document filed yesterday in federal court, the lawyers say the state Department of Human Resources and Baltimore's Department of Social Services have persistently failed to comply with a 1988 agreement that called for swift reform in the care of foster children.
Attorneys say that as recently as Oct. 27, a 14-year-old boy in foster care stayed overnight in a state office building on Gay Street in Baltimore and that caseworkers are still too slow to enroll children in school. They say some caseworkers fail to make regular visits to children to ensure that they are well.
"A generation of children, literally tens of thousands of abused and neglected children, has lived in the foster care system since [the consent decree] without receiving the court- ordered services and protections that [the state] agreed to provide," lawyers Mitchell Y. Mirviss and Rhonda Lipkin contend in the document charging the state with contempt of court. "Baltimore's abused and neglected children are entitled to better treatment than this."
State officials must respond to the contempt filing, and a federal judge is expected to consider the allegations. Mirviss and Lipkin hope the judge will appoint a full-time monitor who will follow up on the state's efforts to improve foster child welfare in Baltimore. Such a system has worked well in other states, including Alabama and Utah, they said.
Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, who has been in the post for less than a year, said she knew the court action was coming - she had been warned in writing by Mirviss and Lipkin as required by law several months ago. Still, she said she was disappointed that they couldn't wait a bit longer to see whether her initial reform efforts could produce improvements.
Donald's agency recently joined with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to study successful foster care programs in other states and try to replicate them in Maryland. And for the first time yesterday, Donald met with leaders at Baltimore's social services headquarters, including director Samuel Chambers Jr., as part of a new effort called Baltimore ReBuild that she hopes will speed reforms. Chambers also has tried to enact changes during his nearly three years in the position, including creating community centers in several city neighborhoods to reach families in need of counseling and other services.
"This is a 19-year-old lawsuit, and I have only been here nine months," said Donald, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley this year. She oversees the Baltimore social services office because it is part of the state's human resources network. "We've been making such great strides, and I think there is clear evidence that the central [DHR] office is taking Baltimore very seriously," she said. "We are bringing a large number of resources to the city."
Donald said children are staying at the state office building on Gay Street for a few hours at a time, not days on end as in the spring of 2005 when The Sun first reported that children were sleeping on floors and chairs. She said there are regular reports on the children who stay at the office - which is staffed 24 hours a day - and that those reports are shared with child advocates. In October, 45 children stayed at the office for an average of 1.9 hours, Donald said.
"I believe that the Gay Street situation has been resolved," Donald said. "Certainly, it is an overnight placement office and sometimes children come in in the middle of the night, but they are not staying there for long periods of time."
Mirviss and Lipkin acknowledge that Donald - a former deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders in Washington - has brought new energy to the agency. However, they said they had heard too many unfulfilled promises since the lawsuit was first filed to wait any longer for evidence of improvements.
"We're at a crisis point," said Lipkin, whose position with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore is funded by legal fees paid by the state out of the consent decree. "What's unfortunate is that we've been at a crisis point for quite a while."
Lawyers used the Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees public access to certain documents, to force the state to let them examine files of numerous foster children in the city. A review enabled attorneys to document a history of unsuitable foster home placements - including an over-reliance on expensive, group home facilities - as well as failure by the state to ensure basic medical and dental care to some children.
In one case documented by the lawyers, city social services case workers allowed a 13-year-old girl to live with a family friend who "drank [alcohol] and physically abused her."
In another case, the agency moved a 14-year-old boy with psychiatric problems to 11 group homes in as many months. As a result, according to court documents, the boy's mental condition deteriorated and he had to be placed in an expensive therapeutic facility.
Mirviss, one of several Baltimore attorneys who represented foster children when the class action lawsuit was filed in the 1980s, said he believes that in some ways the city's system is in worse shape now than 20 years ago.
The attorney said he is worried about the large decrease in the number of foster families in the city - a situation that has been worsened by the agency's decision six years ago to cut day care subsidies to foster families. According to information Mirviss obtained from the state, the total number of foster families in the city has dropped by more than 55 percent - from 3,000 in 2001 to about 1,330 this year.
Donald said her department plans to reinstate day care subsidies for foster families early next year.
But in the meantime, the drop in foster families has meant that officials have had to rely more heavily on group homes, which charge the state up to $60,000 a year per child. Foster families receive a subsidy rate of $735 a month, or about $8,820 a year, Mirviss said.
Group homes often are not the best living situations for foster children, many of whom have been sexually abused or have emotional problems, Mirviss said.
"The system is not providing good outcomes for these kids," he said, adding that while reading some of the foster care files he felt heartbroken and angry. "The children who remain in care aren't getting the services they need to become independent, functioning adults."
Source: Baltimore Sun