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DHR seeks to extend Legal Aid CINA deal

The state’s Department of Human Resources will ask the Board of Public Works on Wednesday for an extension to its contract with the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland for representing the children in Children in Need of Assistance cases.

The department is seeking another six-month extension of the contract that is set to expire on Aug. 31, as the department considers offers from private firms to handle CINA cases in at least six Maryland jurisdictions. The jurisdictions are the city of Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The state’s contract pays the bureau about $4 million to represent children in CINA cases in those jurisdictions.

Legal Aid is expected to object to the limited duration of the extension at Wednesday’s hearing.

Four Montgomery County Circuit Court judges have written to the Board of Public Works who support the bureau’s continued handling of CINA cases, while DHR has written to defend its decision to consider bids from other law firms.

“We understand the need of the state to weigh the ‘value’ of services for which it contracts,” wrote judges Katherine D. Savage, Cynthia Callahan, Richard E. Jordan and Anne K. Albright in a joint letter dated Aug. 8. “Of course, cost is a major component of that evaluation; however, when dealing with young, vulnerable children the quality of representation and the level of passionate commitment must also be weighed heavily — to a person, the Legal Aid attorneys have provided that excellence of service.”

Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas responded in an Aug. 16 letter that each firm the agency is considering for CINA contracts has at least 14 years’ experience advocating for children.

“They have all worked side-by-side with the over 2,000 child welfare workers in the department, who bear the primary responsibility for the safety and care of these children,” Dallas stated in his letter to the three-member board, which consists of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

In the past, Legal Aid’s contracts have been extended for as much as two years at a time. In February, however, DHR extended the contract for only six months. The extension the department now seeks would last through February 2014.