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New state audit faults county social service agencies

ANNAPOLIS — County social service agencies don’t do a good job of tracking foster children, leave federal funding on the table, have missing files on welfare checks and grant food stamps to too many ineligible people, a new state audit found.

These problems and a host of others on documentation and control were found in some of the largest social service agencies in the state, and scores of the issues were repeat errors that had been found in previous audits.

“In view of repeat findings … more oversight by [Department of Human Resources] management may be necessary,” said Chief Legislative Auditor Bruce Myers in a letter to the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee.

The local social service agencies in the 23 counties and Baltimore City, administer state and federal aid programs, and the local directors report to the Human Resources secretary.

The most errors (40 apiece) were found in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. The audit covered the period from April 2008 through June 2011, and was largely conducted by the department’s Office of Inspector General. After reviewing the procedures, legislative auditors relied on the IG findings.

Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas said he made “improving the department’s local operations a top priority” since he took over the agency in May 2011.

“While there is still some work to do, I am happy to report that many of the conditions noted in the audit have already been corrected and we are on our way to resolving all the findings in the audit,” Dallas said.

In particular, Dallas told Myers in a letter, “the department is making progress in its internal operations in several critical areas such as food stamp overpayments.”

“We have brought down food stamp error rate from 6.16 percent in May 2011 to 3.1 percent in December 2011,” he said.

Maryland’s food stamp error rate in fiscal 2010 was the highest in the nation, according to a chart from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Maryland provides almost $1 billion in food assistance, all of it coming from the federal government.

Among the findings, the legislative auditors found foster care case files could not be located to verify eligibility.

“There was a lack of assurance that all children in foster care were receiving vital services necessary for their emotional, physical and educational well-being,” the report said. Eligibility for federal aid was not determined in a timely fashion, possibly resulting “in the failure to maximize federal funding.”

Collections for overpayments for foster care were also inadequate.

The department reported on steps it had taken to track down case files, and 92 percent of foster children now get documented case worker visits each month, above the federal standard.

The department has also streamlined the process for documenting eligibility for federal funding.

Auditors also found inadequate controls over blank checks and prepaid gift cards given to needy citizens to pay for meals and incidentals. There was also lax supervision of government credit cards, failure to get written contracts on major purchases and no assurance that all cash receipts were deposited.

The department said it had changed procedures to fix the identified problems in all those areas.