Dozens of foster care children abandoned in Maryland hospitals by caseworkers

Children, under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of Human Services, have been left in 'bureaucratic limbo,' living in hospitals and psych wards even though they are not sick or injured

Even though they are not sick or injured, dozens of foster care children in Maryland have been essentially living in hospitals after caseworkers dropped them off for treatment and never came back.

Maryland Department of Human Services
Maryland Department of Human Services (photo: courtesy of Google Maps)

Even though they are not sick or injured, dozens of foster care children in Maryland have been essentially living in hospitals after caseworkers dropped them off for treatment and never came back.

One foster child remained in a hospital for 636 days, according to a report from the Maryland Department of Human Services, the state agency responsible for ensuring the well-being of the children, reported The Baltimore Sun.

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Now state lawmakers, peeved that state officials in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration aren’t doing enough to end the practice, are considering legislation that would limit nonmedical hospital stays for children in foster care.

“We are destroying these kids,” Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat who is drafting the bill, told The Baltimore Sun. “We are taking kids who are otherwise mentally healthy and we’re sticking them in psych wards. We are destroying them.”

Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, said it’s “shameful” that children are caught in “bureaucratic limbo.”

“It is a shameful situation that some of our children who are in the most amount of need are in these situations with the least amount of help, and the state is turning its back for a long amount of time,” Lam told The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland Department of Human Services officials submitted a letter to state legislators, explaining that some foster children were taken to area hospitals while they waited for spaces to open up in specialized settings, such as in therapeutic group homes. In the letter, state officials say these children may have been victims of sex trafficking or shown “aggressive and or assaultive behaviors.”

In the report, the agency gave monthly numbers for the foster care children who have been held in hospitals and psychiatric units as “overstays.” From January through November 2019, the state reported an average of 36 children per month were overstays in hospitals and psychiatric units when stays were not medically required. In July, the number skyrocketed to 53 children.

On average, the length of the stay was 23 days in hospitals and 13 days in psychiatric units.

“Finding appropriate placements for youth in DHS’s care is very complex, as each placement needs to be evaluated based on an individual youth’s specific needs and challenges, and every child is unique,” Katherine A. Morris, a spokeswoman for DHS, wrote to The Sun. “The more complicated a child’s behavioral health issues, the harder it is to secure individualized services.”

Morris added that the state has established “multi-disciplinary work groups” to address the issue, including a post-discharge plan of action.

Foster children are often taken to these hospitals after they’ve acted out or gone through a crisis, child advocates say. But once a doctor determines the child is not a danger and not in need of further psychiatric care, he or she is supposed to be released from care. To keep them in the hospital or a psychiatric ward past the time when they should be released further traumatizes children who are already suffering.

Sometimes, children may need further psychiatric care, but then a doctor may release them after several days, explained Carroll McCabe, chief of the mental health unit of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, to The Baltimore Sun.

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When this happens, caseworkers either leave the children at the hospital or pick them up and take them to another hospital, McCabe said.

“To be stuck on one of these units for a long period of time, I can’t imagine it,” McCabe told The Sun. “It’s just really sad. And the kids get sad.”