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Senators battle over homes for juveniles

Another fight over state-funded juvenile group homes ignited on the Senate floor Tuesday, with a bill to give private operators more time to meet the requirement that their workers be certified to take care of troubled youth.

The operators had been given five years to have their staff certified by 2015, but they are seeking another year to meet the requirement. Declining state reimbursement, combined with this unfunded mandate, could put some of them out of business, some said.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, a persistent critic of juvenile services, didn’t buy the argument. He said it was “outrageous” that “we’re saying that we can’t do the bare minimum” to have a more professional staff. He said he planned to offer amendments Wednesday to shorten the time period for certification.

“We’re inundated with group homes in Baltimore County,” Zirkin said.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, the chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that passed the bill unanimously, said the operators “don’t have the money at this time to finish the credentials.”

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, the lead sponsor of the legislation, said, “This is a bill in desperation. We do want the certification, but it comes with a price tag.”

“If we don’t have the group homes in the state of Maryland, [the children] get shipped out of state,” Middleton said.

Middleton said the certification could cost $5,500 per person, but Zirkin said that was the cost of an academic program developed by the Community College of Baltimore County. “There are no-cost and low-cost options for obtaining certification,” he said.

In testimony before the Senate committee, some of the group home operators had proposed eliminating the requirement altogether, saying it was designed to put the small “mom-and-pop” and minority agencies out of business.

The homes take care of teenagers placed there for foster care or by juvenile services. To qualify for a certificate as “a residential child and youth care practitioner,” an individual must be of good moral character, complete a criminal background check, be at least age 21 (or 18 with a college degree), meet education and training requirements set up by a state board and pass a board examination.

A 2008 law gave group homes until 2013 to have their staff certified. Last year, that was extended to 2015, and this year the group home agencies want it extended to 2016.

All three state departments involved with the group homes opposed the extension — the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the homes; the Department of Human Resources, which places children for foster care; and the Department of Juvenile Services, which handles youth involved in crime.

DJS has about 600 youth in residential group homes.