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Baltimore Social Services Finds Kin with Schools' Help

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In an ideal world, children who had to be removed from their homes would at least retain some familiar elements in their placement. Maybe they'd stay with someone they knew, be close enough to keep going to their favorite neighborhood park, or stay in their same school. It turns out Baltimore, Maryland, is this kind of ideal world for more and more children who enter out- of-home care.

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore City's Department of Social Services (DSS), a CWLA member agency, had been trying to increase the percentage of children who were placed with kin, which was about 40%. In Maryland, she had more options than her counterparts in other jurisdictions; "I have the luxury of a liberal statutory definition of kin," she says. "Fictive kin is fine." But she wasn't looking for kin in the right places. It was one evening at dinner with friends in the school system that McGrath Tierney came up with a better place to look. "One thing [parents] don't mess up is the emergency contact card. They put on the emergency contact card people who love their kids; that's something they get right," McGrath Tierney explains.

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore's Department of Social Services, with some of the children served by the department at a press conference last year.

She estimates that about 100 children enter the system each month in Baltimore. DSS gets the emergency contact card for about half of those, and for about 20 of the original 100, information from the card results in a placement. Of course there are some children who won't benefit from this--children too young for school or teens who have left, plus homeschooled or private school students--but it's a big step forward for DSS-involved children who are public school students, which comprise "easily" 65-70%, McGrath Tierney says.

It's a simple solution, but McGrath Tierney is careful to clarify that simple is not the same as easy. In fact, there was some legal wrangling before the memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in March 2009. The MOU was carefully crafted to allay any concerns about potential breach of confidentiality by DSS or liability for the school system. Even after the MOU was in place, there was a hiccup in implementation because McGrath Tierney and DSS had assumed information from the emergency contact cards was kept in an electronic format, but that's not true in Baltimore.

However, the process has developed smoothly and is being used in the current school year. If a worker has to remove a child from home, the worker asks the parent(s) where that child goes to school. McGrath Tierney points out that during the emotionally charged experience of their child being removed, it's easier for parents to answer a simple, fact-based question like that, as opposed to trying to recommend relatives who may be able to take care of the child. The worker then calls in to the central DSS office, who in turn calls the schools' dispatcher (also a centralized office), gives a password that changes daily, and asks for the needed information. The dispatcher calls the school and gets the information, then relays it back. McGrath Tierney says involving the centralized offices as opposed to caseworkers calling the schools directly adds a level of trust, because the schools already have an established relationship with the dispatcher. Besides, the process is quick, taking less than an hour.

McGrath Tierney recognizes that she's fortunate in Baltimore to have a one-to-one ratio: one public social services agency to one public school district. Trying to implement this system on a county or even state level could be complicated because there would be more school districts. While a similar solution might be helpful in one city, it might not be worth it in another jurisdiction. Therefore, McGrath Tierney advises considering the local system. "If this isn't the simple and obvious thing to do, there's something else simple and obvious there," she believes. If the desired outcomes aren't being achieved, she says "it must be because we're doing the wrong work, or we're accessing the wrong resources."

"We've had some dramatic success here in Baltimore City," she continues, but simple things proved to be the answer. "Einstein didn't come to town." This progress and future initiatives are part of McGrath Tierney's crusade to revive normalcy for foster children. "It strikes me that the one surefire thing that kids in foster care have been robbed of is a normal life," she says. "Let's make them stop being 'other' and make them 'normal.'" She mentions a common-sense move to give foster parents and caseworkers access to the school system's online portal for viewing class assignments and grades. "For some reason we don't think about doing that kind of thing for kids in foster care," she says. Next on the agenda is ensuring children in care exercise their options for school choice. McGrath Tierney wants to keep pushing so that instead of having to ask, "Are my kids enrolled in school?" she can ask, "Why aren't each of them performing in the top 10%?" After all, she says, "that's the job with kids--to have high expectations for them."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.


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