'Place Matters' matters to these state lawmakers
Two days after a state senator said Brenda Donald's signature child welfare program was “not working,” the Human Resources secretary received a warm reception — even applause — when she appeared before another group of lawmakers Thursday.
At a briefing for the joint committee on children, youth and families, Donald summarized why she believes “Place Matters,” which she launched two years ago, is improving outcomes for vulnerable children. Under this new approach, the department focuses on reunifying foster children with their own parents or keeping them in family settings, a shift that has reduced the state's reliance on group home beds by nearly half.
Donald said she is using evaluating the quality of group homes across Maryland and being selective about which ones will continue to receive state contracts — a radical departure from years past. The Baltimore Sun investigated the state's lax oversight of group homes in a 2005 series and numerous follow-up stories warehoused here.
“It is refreshing to us that you get it and are doing such a good job,” said Sen. Nancy J. King, a Montgomery County Democrat. King’s comment drew applause from the audience.
Donald’s last trip to Annapolis wasn’t so warm and fuzzy. Her Tuesday testimony to the Senate committee that oversees social services wasn’t a “pleasant experience,” as Sen. Joan Carter Conway noted after grilling her for more than an hour.
Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said she doesn’t like the way group homes have been shunted under Place Matters. A room full of angry group home providers agreed.
“We don’t think the department knows what it needs,” said Jim McComb, longtime director of Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, who recently stepped down.
On Thursday, Sen Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who pushed for the kind of group home reform Donald is now undertaking, warned her she’d continue to be pummeled with complaints because providers are losing money and going out of business (38 have lost DHR contracts so far).
“You’re going to get a torrent of criticism by those who have a vested interest in what was a broken system,” Zirkin said.
Donald responded to one of the criticisms leveled Tuesday — that she had no proof that children are not bouncing around from placement to placement under the new strategy — by releasing statistics Wednesday to The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board. You can read the editorial here.