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Repeat problems at DHR dismay senators

State senators on a budget subcommittee said that they were dismayed by the abysmal results of the state’s most recent audit of its Department of Human Resources, which distributes welfare, foster care, and other social services to needy Marylanders.

Its 2012 audit revealed hundreds of financial and ethical improprieties committed by state social workers between 2008 and 2011, including 77 repeat findings of mistakes that were discovered by auditors five years earlier. The documented errors included unwarranted denial of services, erratic record-keeping, defective data security, and instances where former employees had improper access to state bank accounts.

Audit manager Joshua Adler said these issues were deeply concerning during his testimony before the Senate’s Health and Human Services Subcommittee on Thursday. “This is a real problem,” Adler said. “I’m not going to say that I’ve never seen this in an audit before, but it’s rare.”

The department has an annual budget of approximately $2.5 billion, most of which is spent on Maryland’s child welfare system and its public assistance programs. Sixty-five percent of this funding comes from the federal government.

Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, said that he was upset by the fact that some of the worst offending social welfare offices were in his district, which repeated 45% of all mistakes noted in the previous audit.

“Is there any potential for redemption?” Manno asked. “Is there a will to fix things, or is there a culture of not really taking this seriously?”

Adler said that this department audit was actually superior to the previous one. “If you look at it from a historical perspective, these numbers are actually getting better,” he said. “But I’m with you. I don’t like repeat findings either. It shows the system didn’t work.”

Subcommittee chair James Robey, D-Howard, said that somebody needed to be held accountable for the department’s poor performance on the audit. “Sometimes you need to drop the hammer on leadership to get their attention,” he said, adding that all the office directors in the department should be evaluated based on their ability and willingness to reform.

“If they can’t fix this, maybe they shouldn’t be employed in state service,” Robey said, and then he announced that he would summon the directors to come before the subcommittee to explain themselves.

But Robey said he could not justify slashing funding to the department, explaining that this policy would not punish the people responsible but would instead harm the state’s most vulnerable citizens during a time of economic hardship.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore City, agreed and emphasized the importance of holding the right people accountable by using a football metaphor.

“What happened when the Ravens offense didn’t work out?” McFadden asked. “Who did they get rid of? Not the players, but the offensive coordinator, and if that didn’t work out, they’d can the coach.”

Theodore Dallas, the department’s secretary, defended his staff and said that he has remedied all the problems identified in the audit since it was released last May. The audit looked at the department’s performance between April 2008 and June 2011. Dallas became secretary of the Department of Human Resources in the spring of 2011, so he was in office for only two months out of the three years evaluated in the most recent department audit.

“What I can tell you is that we take these audit findings very seriously,” Dallas said. “We have addressed every single finding.”

He said that his experience as a businessman helped him to turnaround the department, by stratifying the list of problems and ensuring that the most worrisome issues were resolved first.

Dallas also testified that he had warned the department’s private contractors that they needed to improve their performance to keep their jobs, and he said that they had responded appropriately.

“It’s amazing what can happen when you hold people’s feet to the fire,” Dallas said.

Robey assured the secretary that his effort was appreciated and asked him to remain vigilant about imposing reform.

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