- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Acting D.C. Human Services Director Yvonne D. Gilchrist said her performance as director of Baltimore social services was “outstanding,” though that agency is now being targeted for reform and investigated in the death of a girl in foster care last year.

“My background and my work that I did in Baltimore city and in other jobs was outstanding, considering the things and circumstances I had to deal with — limited resources, not enough staff, buildings that needed to be improved,” Miss Gilchrist told The Washington Times. “We still got the job done.”

Miss Gilchrist took the helm at Human Services on Monday. Her position pays $140,000 a year. Confirmation hearings are not expected until October because the D.C. Council will be in summer recess.

Several D.C. Council members have promised grueling hearings since The Times first reported earlier this month that Miss Gilchrist’s eight-year tenure in Baltimore ended with state officials planning a management shake-up amid the investigation by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. into the death of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes.

The Times has since obtained copies of a May 2002 audit conducted by the Maryland General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services, which raised “significant questions” about DSS’s monitoring of foster care children. The audit found that criminal-background checks were not adequately conducted on foster parents in 48 percent of the cases reviewed.

The audit of a sample of 163 children in the state’s foster care programs found that caseworkers were not maintaining sufficient contact with children or foster parents; permanent placement of children was not completed on time; and basic health care, including therapy, was not provided.

Though the audit was performed statewide, the majority of the children studied — between 70 percent and 80 percent — were in Baltimore.

Miss Gilchrist said she fixed those problems prior to the audit. She blamed the agency’s shortcomings on a lack of state funding, which the audit confirmed. The agency serves 65 percent of the state’s child-welfare cases, but gets 45 percent of its child-welfare budget. “We were totally understaffed,” she said.

Other problems at DSS under Miss Gilchrist included:

• The state in May 2000 settled a class-action lawsuit against DSS for denying appeal rights to people cut off from welfare. As a result, the city offered more than 10,000 Baltimore families a chance to appeal and reinstated benefits for some, pending appeals.

• A University of Maryland study in 2002 found that an inordinate number of people left the welfare rolls in Baltimore because of administrative problems, not because they found employment.

• The federal Office for Civil Rights found that some DSS offices didn’t properly screen welfare recipients for mental disabilities, didn’t refer disabled persons to special-aid or rehabilitation programs, and didn’t conduct follow-ups in welfare-disability cases.

Miss Gilchrist said changes were made promptly when problems were revealed, though she disputed the university study and claimed the number of families offered appeals was fewer than 10,000.

“You can go to almost any city and nothing is ever 100 percent, but we tried to achieve that each and every day,” Miss Gilchrist said. “You have some workers or some staff that may not do everything the way it should be done. But when that happens and we are notified … then we put in corrective action and make it correct.”

Miss Gilchrist said she left DSS because she achieved more than half her goals there, and not because Maryland Secretary of Human Services Christopher J. McCabe called for significant restructuring at DSS. “No one asked me to leave,” she said.

Miss Gilchrist defended her agency against allegations about its role in Ciara’s death. She was starved and beaten to death last December while in the custody of Satrina Roberts, a woman thought to be mentally ill.

“I feel very good about our role because we basically did not have custody of Ciara at the time,” she said. She acknowledged that DSS caseworkers had contact with Ciara before the courts placed her with Miss Roberts.

The agency did not oppose the placement. “We had no reason to stop that at the time,” Miss Gilchrist said. Miss Roberts is scheduled to stand trial in Ciara’s death next month.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has not wavered in his support for Miss Gilchrist, and remains “reasonably confident” she will be confirmed. “She’s done a great job,” he has said of her time in Baltimore.

Tony Bullock, the mayor’s communications director, said reports of poor oversight of foster care and mismanagement at DSS should not be seen as Miss Gilchrist’s failures.

“You can find, unfortunately, plenty of reports on the District government by the federal government … that are less than flattering,” Mr. Bullock said. “You have to look at the totality of someone’s performance and the specific reasons” behind such findings.

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