Illinois Is Down; Is Baltimore Up?

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Child welfare in Illinois was in rough shape when the ACLU of Illinois filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Children and Family Services in 1988. That same year, a judge in Maryland signed off on settlement of a class-action lawsuit concerning Baltimore's child welfare system, which is part of the Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR).

Illinois was very successful in implementing a new system, mostly because it committed to spend unmatched state dollars on up-front services that prevent children from ever entering foster care. Baltimore never really got better, and was still so bad in 2007 that Mitch Mirviss, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, was back in front of a judge asking him to hold DHR in contempt of court.

But developments this month have signaled a reversal of fortune for the two systems. Illinois social services were facing catastrophic cutbacks. An agreement by the state general assembly to borrow some money may soften the blow, and a federal judge stepped in to block at least some cuts to DCFS because they would "represent the certainty of irreparable harm to the children." The push to protect child welfare money got a nice little assist from some high-profile stars of the Chicago White Sox.

Despite those actions, the system will operate with far fewer resources next year, and a few of the many private providers that carry out child welfare services for the state believe the cuts will undo a lot of the progress made since the early 1990s.

In Baltimore, things are far from rosy. In his motion seeking a contempt of court ruling, Mirviss spelled out 96 alleged violations of the consent decree. But the motion for contempt led to mediation. And now he and his colleagues working on the case have been so impressed by the leadership of DHR Secretary Brenda Donald that the two sides have fashioned a proposed new  consent decree that could usher the city out of court supervision by 2011. A hearing on the new decree is set for early August. Donald, who became Maryland's DHR secretary in March 2007 was director of D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency from 2004 to 2005, then became deputy mayor for children, youth, families, and elders (which is pretty much everyone, right?).

The new consent decree shifts the focus of reform to the same concepts that helped Illinois succeed early on: family preservation and family decision making. 

How much did the decision to make a new deal with the state hinge on Donald's presence? "A lot," Mirviss said, when asked that question.  "We definitely feel that the time is now. They will never have a better chance of coming into compliance."

His feeling is that Donald has the rare mix of talents - knows how to run an organization, has political acumen and has her ego in check - to go very far in her career. So who knows how long she'll stay at the state secretary level? National family preservation advocate Richard Wexler agrees: Donald gets it, he wrote in an opinion piece published by the Baltimore Sun.

To be sure: Donald has made strides in moving children in the system toward permanency, and there are about 1,000 fewer youths in Maryland's system  now than there were in 2027. But the state has a ton of work ahead of it if Baltimore is to be released from court control by 2011. The consent decree has 40 outcome measures (read about them here) that the city system must meet within 18 months.

"I certainly hope they comply," Mirviss said. "But it will take tremendous effort, and they won't get out unless they achieve full compliance" with the consent decree. Donald is on vacation, so she was unavailable for comment.

Not everyone is totally thrilled with the performance of DHR under Donald. Mirviss credits her openness to incorporating the ideas of advocates, but the leader of the state's most prominent youth advocacy group has found DHR tough to deal with under Donald.

"We have a tense relationship" with DHR, said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY). Joseph cannot remember a time where he had to file more public information requests to find out what he needs to know about DHR operations.

"I have not found them to be transparent," Joseph said. Donald's mentality, he said, appears to be, " 'I'm doing great work, why should you be looking at me at all?' Well, we have an agenda, and we have a lot of concern."

The tension is mutual. In a letter to ACY's board, updating members on DHR progress before the new consent decree was announced, Donald said "we are often surprised and confused by his [Joseph's] negative and inaccurate comments in the press." 

As far as the new consent decree is concerned, Joseph said he is interested in how DHR plans to move so quickly toward a new philosophy built around family preservation and including families in decision-making. Donald's letter to ACY's board mentioned a series of two-day training sessions on the family-centered approach. If that is the whole of it, Joseph said, the shift might be doomed from the start.

"Classroom training is not effective at all," he said. "Field training is important, and that's one of Baltimore's Achilles' heels." Then again, all local DHR departments should have been implementing family involvement meetings since December under DHR's new family-centered policy, so the system isn't exactly starting from scratch now.

Joseph is dubious about DHR's potential to steer Baltimore out of court supervision in such a short period of time -  "I really question if the agency has the capacity to achieve it," he told us - but he does believe the parameters of the new agreement are sound. "The department and the plaintiffs have formed a good relationship," he said. "I respect [the plaintiffs'] judgment on this issue."

Mirviss trusts Donald, and Joseph trusts Mirviss, so it's "to be continued" from there.