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Hearings planned on group homes

Concerned about the care, spending and staffing in state-licensedchildren's group homes, lawmakers plan to hold hearings beginning next monthon making "significant" changes to the regulation of the privately runfacilities.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee,said yesterday that the panel will study consolidating the licensing andmonitoring of the 330 children's group homes under one state agency. "The goalis, one, to make significant improvement and, two, to see what taxpayers aregetting for their money and are we making a difference in the lives of thekids," said Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat.

The move follows an investigation by The Sun that found regulators were notproperly monitoring the state-funded homes. Children were being mistreated orneglected at some homes without consequences. Many homes employed unqualifiedor poorly trained staff, including some with criminal records. Meanwhile,several operators enriched themselves, family and friends.

The licensing, monitoring, rate-setting and child-placementresponsibilities for the homes are scattered across several state agenciesthat often have failed to enforce Maryland rules or alert one another aboutproblems.

"There's not one overall chain of command, and there's almost no way youcan have accountability," Currie said.

Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, saidhis agency has started making improvements in its operations by conductingunannounced inspections, checking on employee qualifications and requiringmore homes to submit plans for improvements.

McCabe said the department hopes to add as many as five inspectors to theeight now on staff, encourage child caseworkers to notify the inspectors ofconcerns and place more children with foster families rather than the homes.The department regulates most of the homes, and places 2,400 of the 2,700youths in them.

In 2001, a state task force criticized the fragmented regulatory system andunsuccessfully recommended consolidation of group-home oversight within thestate Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Ella White Campbell, a task force member who lives near several group homesin Randallstown, urged legislators to take immediate action.

"We have studied this issue, and nothing is done," she said. "The time isnow to take issue with those who are abusing the system."

Jim McComb, who leads an industry trade group called the MarylandAssociation of Resources for Families and Youth, echoed support for promptreform. "The monitoring of children's residential facilities is grosslyinadequate," he said.

"DHR, in particular, has allowed these programs to be licensed, continuesto allow them to be licensed and places kids in them, but gives them nooversight," said McComb, whose 60 members are companies running group homes,shelters, treatment foster care programs and other services.

Group homes take in youths who are abused, neglected or in trouble with thelaw, or whose disabilities require care relatives can't provide. They receivean average of $60,000 a year per child from Maryland, which spends a total of$157 million annually on the care.

Currie, who has talked with McCabe twice since publication of the newspaperinvestigation last month, said the hearings will explore how to get regulatorsto make sure group homes use state funding to provide quality care and hirequalified staff.

He said the hearings will first focus on oversight by human resources andlater look at the regulation by other state agencies. The departments ofJuvenile Services and of Health and Mental Hygiene license and monitor. Aninteragency committee staffed by the Department of Education sets rates.

"There's got to be greater control," Currie said. "There's got to begreater accountability."

He described lawmakers as "very much concerned."

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for Juvenile Services, said it holds the 20homes it licenses to state standards and supports hearings aimed at helpingMaryland youths. Offices of the Health Department, the governor and theGovernor's Office for Children, Youth and Families did not respond to requestsfor comment.

McCabe described the hearings as an "opportunity" to spread word to recruitmore foster families to take children in place of group homes.

He played down the benefits of consolidation, saying it would merely helplawmakers know whom to contact when encountering problems with the homes. Iflicensing and monitoring were moved to another agency, he said, his departmentwould have an important function because it oversees most foster children.

"Wherever the regulatory apparatus is situated, we're going to play a majorrole in the regulation of group homes," he said.

Hearings by the committee are scheduled for June 14 and July 26 inAnnapolis.

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