PJC In The News

Advocates Barred From Investigating Foster Kids Housed in Office Buildings

Following is an article in the Baltimore Sun yesterday concerning the efforts of PJC Attorney Rhonda Lipkin and co-counsel at Venable and Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, LLP to investigate foster children being housed in city office buildings.   We represent 7,000 foster children in Maryland a class action.

Advocates barred from state office that housed kids

Group told to return after DSS head's vacation

By Lynn Anderson
Sun reporter

December 22, 2005

Child welfare advocates were barred from entering a state office building in Baltimore yesterday in an effort to check on a place where more than 100 foster children have been housed illegally overnight in the past year.

The advocates, including attorneys who monitor the city's 7,000 foster children as part of a long-standing consent decree, said they asked last week to visit the city Department of Social Services intake office to see if children are spending the night there and, if so, whether they are getting proper meals, toiletries and medical attention.

They said they were told they would be able to inspect the facility, at 300 N. Gay St., yesterday, but social services officials stopped them.

"We're here because we wanted to give it one last chance," said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, an attorney who has reviewed hundreds of DSS documents in an attempt to figure out how many foster children have stayed at the office, which is not licensed to shelter the youths.

Shortly after Mirviss and the rest of the advocacy group arrived at the office yesterday afternoon, they were greeted by city DSS Assistant Director James Cartwright and Norris P. West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources. The state agency operates the city's department.

The encounter was tense, with each side accusing the other of being uncooperative.
"These meetings never seem to come off well," Cartwright said, referring to past tours of the facility with advocates in June and October. "There seems to be an adversarial atmosphere."

The officials told advocates that they would have to wait to enter the office until after the Christmas and New Year's holidays because DSS Director Samuel Chambers Jr. - who has tried to cut down on the number of overnight stays at the shelter - was on vacation.
"I don't think anyone is saying that they won't be able to visit the office," West said. "But we want to agree to a date when all the parties can be here."

Last week, Chambers said he has been trying to find more emergency beds for foster children but has been unsuccessful. Chambers and other DSS officials have expressed frustration that no local service providers have stepped forward to help.

But advocates said DSS hasn't done enough, not even putting out a formal request for proposals from groups that might offer shelter options. They said they are incensed that the state has continued to use the office to shelter children after officials promised to discontinue the practice in June.

"Children are being taken away from their parents and they are coming to an office building," said Rhoda Lipkin, an attorney who also monitors the consent decree. "What are they supposed to think?"

Donna Comegys, an attorney who represents foster children in city courts, said she has a client who felt he was being punished when brought by a social worker to the Gay Street facility. "He thought that he had done something wrong," she said.

When advocates found out about the illegal shelter in June, they said that boys slept on hard-back chairs, and that girls slept on thin mattresses on the floor. They also said they have discovered that children have been denied proper meals (most eat at McDonald's) and that some nights only one adult is on hand to supervise children. Older children often leave the facility without permission.

Mirviss, who participated in a news conference last week to spotlight problems in the state foster care system, including a dwindling roster of foster parents, said he would continue to fight for access to the office. He said he wanted to see if conditions had improved.

"Our position is that we should have unfettered access to an illegal shelter where children are being held," he said.


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