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City of Lost Kids

A new director tries to fix Baltimore's broken child-welfare system.

Photographs By Jefferson Jackson Steele
The Baltimore Department of Social Service's Molly Mcgrath (right) and the Maryland Department of Human Resources' Brenda Donald (second from right) present an award to the Foster family (their last name is "Foster").
DSS Assistant Director David Thompson Jr. has helped implement reform measures, including a database to match clients with foster families and keeping young children out of group homes.
DSS case worker Steven Youngblood (left) and Jeff, who spent most of his youth in Baltimore's foster-care system.
Mcgrath gets away from dss for a few hours with her band, The Unit Block.
Molly Mcgrath

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/10/2009

The first of a two-part series.

Read part two.

Page 1 of 2.   1  2  

Baltimore City's foster-care system is messed up. That's not exactly news. But it turns out that it's not just messed up in the ways you'd expect, but in ways that come as a surprise, even in a city as jaded as ours. Yes, group homes can be bad places where kids are warehoused rather than cared for. Yes, kids who have come to the attention of children's welfare services end up in jail or even dead due to neglect, abuse, and sometimes just the violence of our city streets. But did you know that there are people who have been approved to be foster parents who have been waiting for months and sometimes years to get a child in their home? Or that at this time last year, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS) didn't necessarily know if all the kids under its care had gotten the medical attention they needed, or even where all those kids were?

Here's another surprising thing: The first person to admit how messed up DSS has been--and, in some ways, still is--is its leader, Molly McGrath. "It doesn't have a glowing reputation for good reason," McGrath says. "I think it's fair to say that DSS hasn't really been shouldering its weight."

When she became director last September, McGrath was confronted by a department where some employees didn't have desks or basic office supplies, where data collection was ineffective, where caseloads varied widely from worker to worker, and where kids under DSS care could spend their entire childhoods shuffled from placement to placement. There was a lot to do, from making an agency that has been under a federal court order to improve since the '80s function efficiently to changing the culture to a child-focused model, which begs the question: What was the agency focused on before?

Over the last several months, City Paper was granted extensive access to the Department of Social Services as it worked its way through some of these changes. Successes were evident, as were failures. Some DSS employees worked their hearts out for kids and others fell asleep at training sessions. DSS' ongoing attempt to turn the boat around will be examined in two parts. This week's story will focus on the state of the department and the people trying to change it. Next week, we'll follow a program to move teenagers from group homes into families through the highs and lows of implementation.

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