Sunday, August 9, 2009

Betrayal in Baltimore

This one really stinks.

Of all the child welfare class-action lawsuit settlements around the country, one of those that has dragged on the longest concerns Baltimore. It was already well underway when I cited it in my book, Wounded Innocents, which was published in 1990.

It wasn't one of the better settlements, in part because there was less experience with this kind of litigation back then. And, as so often happens, the child welfare agency in Maryland, the Department of Human Resources, stalled and stalled rather than meet its obligations.

Then, just a few weeks ago, on June 23, a breakthrough: The two sides negotiated a smarter, slimmed-down consent decree. Unlike the original, this one emphasized family preservation. And, back in June, there was some reason to believe that Maryland was serious about compliance. That's because a new leader of DHR, Brenda Donald, already had shown some of the right priorities. She began closing group homes and reducing entries into foster care – though in recent months they've started to go back up again.

It sounded like an enlightened child welfare leader genuinely committed to working with advocates. It wasn't. In fact, it was just a tactic – a bit of expedience to create a veneer of cooperation. That became clear when an opportunity opened up to weasel out of the deal – and DHR raced to double-cross the advocates.

Two days after the agreement was reached, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision concerning a class-action suit in Arizona. Though that lawsuit was unrelated to child welfare, the Maryland Attorney General's office thinks it may be able to use the decision to worm its way out of the agreement his state just signed. And that's just what they're trying to do – apparently with Donald's encouragement.

In most states, the Attorney General acts as the lawyer for state agencies. That means the agency is the client and can tell the Attorney General what actions it wants taken on its behalf. In other states, the Attorney General can act without the agency's blessing and even against its wishes. (That used to cause a lot of problems in Utah, for example, though in recent years the human services agency and the attorney general's office there seem to have reached a truce.)

But either way, Brenda Donald had one obligation so simple, so fundamental that it shouldn't be necessary to explain it here: When you make an agreement you keep your word. In letter and spirit. Period. End of story. So Donald's obligation here was either to order the Attorney General's office to knock it off or, if she lacks that power, speak out forcefully against the attempt to weasel out of the agreement. She did neither.

On the contrary, her comments to The Daily Record, a Baltimore legal publication suggest she's thrilled with this turn of events. Donald told the record:

"I do want the ability to drive this reform agenda and to allow my extremely capable director [in Baltimore] to run her own agency without court oversight and without paying millions of dollars in lawyers' fees and taking hundreds of hours to go over fine points.

In fact, a hallmark of this new agreement was that it was not bogged down in fine points, precisely because the lawyers who brought the suit thought they were dealing with someone they could trust. But that's actually beside the point. The issue is: Brenda Donald gave her word on behalf of the State of Maryland. Then, she encouraged the state try to break it as soon as a chance presented itself. Therefore, the burden of proof rests with Brenda Donald to explain why she should ever again be trusted.

And since being in foster care already means one betrayal after another, the worst possible message to send to young people in the system is that the adults who have a responsibility to care for them will , at the first opportunity, weasel out of that obligation.

What all this reveals is the Achilles heel of even some reform-minded child welfare administrators: A particular kind of arrogance that says, in effect: "Accountability may be needed for bad child welfare administrators, but I'm one of the good guys. I believe what you believe. I won't abuse my power. So why should anyone bother me with all that pesky court oversight?"

This kind of arrogance also comes through in the barely disguised contempt too many child welfare administrators have for unions. And it's why some child welfare leaders who are good about bolstering services for families are less keen on bolstering due process protections. Both unions and due process are seen only as impediments to allowing them to Do What's Right.

But I've never seen a case quite this extreme. I've never seen a child welfare leader actually say, in effect, "trust me, we'll do this on our own" right after, at a minimum, standing by and cheering while others in state government stabbed her erstwhile partners in the back.