PJC In The News

Foster-care dispute to go to mediation

By: Caryn Tamber

The Daily Record

September 15, 2008

The two sides in the 24-year-old fight over foster care in Baltimore will sit down with a mediator. The fight began in 1984 when lawyers filed suit against the state to protest what they said was inadequate care for foster children. The suit, L.J. v. Massinga, was settled by consent decree four years later, but lawyers for the foster children say the state still has not done everything it agreed to in 1988. Last year, the lawyers representing the children asked a federal judge to find the state in contempt and enforce compliance with the consent decree. Lawyers for the state and lawyers for the children were before U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore last week to discuss the motion, but after Motz made some introductory remarks, the children’s lawyers asked for a recess. About 40 minutes later, they returned and told the judge both sides had agreed to mediation to work out a plan for the state to comply with the consent decree. “We are very much looking forward to trying to get this case to the point where defendants are in compliance…,” Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a Venable LLP lawyer representing the children, said in an interview. “It’s been 20 years. The children have waited a long time. A whole generation of children has passed through the system, and we are excited that the defendant will work with us to try to fix the system.” In their contempt motion, Mirviss and his co-counsel, Rhonda B. Lipkin of the Public Justice Center, detailed a number of violations of the consent decree by the Maryland Department of Human Resources and its subdivision, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. Among other things, they alleged that the departments do not have enough appropriate foster homes; offer inadequate subsidies to foster parents; do not properly recruit, vet and train foster parents; and provide inadequate medical care and educational services. Last Tuesday, Motz began the hearing by acknowledging the positions of each side. “I absolutely understand why the plaintiffs are frustrated,” he said. “They are to be commended for caring so much. … I understand the defendants saying, ‘Look, we’re doing the best we can.’” Motz said he can’t and doesn’t want to run the foster care system from the bench, though. He said that consent decrees are “a problem for me.” “I don’t have any intention to micromanage DSS; I’ll tell the plaintiffs that flat out,” he said. On the other hand, he said, there’s too much at stake for the two sides to “be throwing up their hands” and giving up on improving the system. Mirviss and Lipkin downplayed the role Motz’s remarks played in the decision to mediate. “We were prepared to go forward” by providing supporting data for their motion, Lipkin said. The state “made the decision to go forward and make the offer” to mediate, she said. Nancy C. Lineman, communications director for the Department of Human Resources, characterized Motz’s words as leading to a victory for both sides. She wrote in an e-mail that her department believes the judge did not want to find the state in contempt because “he understands that we’re making significant progress in reforming Baltimore City DSS and that our results are really starting to take hold. “Obviously, he also understands that we will not be able to administer social service programs perfectly,” Lineman wrote. “In our estimation, it was a huge day, a great victory and a commitment from both sides to work together on the real goal: improve child welfare services in Baltimore.” The state and lawyers for the children have tried mediation before, Mirviss said. He said the two sides sat down during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but negotiations ceased when Ehrlich lost his race for re-election. We hope you've enjoyed this article. For more news stories please visit us at The Daily Record Online!

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