Concerned about the care, spending and staffing in state-licensed children's group homes, lawmakers plan to hold hearings beginning next month on making "significant" changes to the regulation of the privately run facilities.

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

The move follows an investigation by The Sun that found regulators were not properly monitoring the state-funded homes. Children were being mistreated or neglected at some homes without consequences. Many homes employed unqualified or poorly trained staff, including some with criminal records. Meanwhile, several operators enriched themselves, family and friends.

The licensing, monitoring, rate-setting and child-placement responsibilities for the homes are scattered across several state agencies that often have failed to enforce Maryland rules or alert one another about problems.

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

Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said his agency has started making improvements in its operations by conducting unannounced inspections, checking on employee qualifications and requiring more homes to submit plans for improvements.

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

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

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

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

Jim McComb, who leads an industry trade group called the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, echoed support for prompt reform. "The monitoring of children's residential facilities is grossly inadequate," he said.

"DHR, in particular, has allowed these programs to be licensed, continues to allow them to be licensed and places kids in them, but gives them no oversight," 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 the law, or whose disabilities require care relatives can't provide. They receive an 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 newspaper investigation last month, said the hearings will explore how to get regulators to make sure group homes use state funding to provide quality care and hire qualified staff.

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

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

He described lawmakers as "very much concerned."

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

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

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

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

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