ANNAPOLIS — Maryland officials yesterday reluctantly approved spending $700,000 more in oversight of the state’s foster care program in Baltimore, saying the state has spent $2 million in legal fees in the past two decades with “no end in sight.”
“I feel like I’m in a Dickens novel,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, who approved the spending as a member of the Board of Public Works with fellow Democrats Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. “This is just going to go on and on and on.”
The board members said they likely will have to approve another $1 million after attorneys file a contempt order against the state.
The state received a court order to overhaul its foster care system in 1988 after four years of fighting a class-action lawsuit that claimed foster children were being physically and sexually abused.
Most of the programs across Maryland have met the court’s requirements. An exception is Baltimore’s program, which is run by the state and houses about 65 percent of the state’s 10,300 foster children.
A spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the social services programs of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, said the agency is trying to meet the requirements but the difficulties of life associated with foster care often cannot match court-imposed deadlines.
“Still, we need to be diligent in spite of the hurdles we may face,” said spokesman Norris West. “There’s no excuse.”
The agency started a program called “LJStat” to track compliance with the consent decree but has not met court-ordered benchmarks for education, health care and site visits to foster children. The name comes from the class-actionlawsuit L.J. v. Massinga.
Lawyers representing the city’s foster children said they plan to file the contempt order because of the state’s problems meeting the court benchmarks.
“One can’t even begin to think of an end to the consent decree,” said Mitchell Mirviss, co-counsel in the case, which was filed in 1984 by Venable LLP, Whiteford, Taylor and Preston LLP, and the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.
Problems with the foster care system have worsened in the past five years, he said. While the number of foster homes in Baltimore has been cut in half, the population of foster children has increased as a result of the inner-city crack epidemic of the late 1990s.
Mr. Mirviss said independent oversight is the only way to make sure the state fulfills the orders.
“This is a closed system that is not open or accessible to the public,” he said. “If there is no oversight of this, the system will not do what is required.”
The state paid $595,000 in legal fees in 1988, an additional $268,000 in 1989 and $350,000 in 2005.
With the $700,000 paid yesterday, the total comes to $1.9 million.
Mr. Franchot called the consent decree a “gift that keeps on giving.”
Mr. O’Malley said he would rather see the money go to social services.
“We can use these dollars to better serve” foster children, he said.