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Md. official vows to bring developmentally disabled youths back to state

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

ANNAPOLIS — A state official is vowing to begin bringing severely developmentally disabled youths in out-of-state group homes back to Maryland in six to eight weeks.

Gregory James, deputy secretary of operations for the Department of Human Resources, told the Board of Public Works Wednesday that his agency is working on plans that would lead to an in-state facility after the panel rejected an initial report and raised questions about a contract with one such facility in Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to establish sufficient resources in Maryland to bring back as many out-of-state youth as possible,” said James.

James’ comments came as the Board of Public Works delayed a decision for two weeks on an emergency contract to send three more severely developmentally disabled youths to the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts.

James said his agency is working with others, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, on an emergency basis to create an in-state option for children who could be sent out-of-state “so we are not forced into making very difficult and very troubling decisions about those placements.”

Hogan called the report to the board Wednesday “unsatisfactory” and ordered the department to appear again before the panel in two weeks.

“Maybe we’ll get a little more detail on a plan for the program you’re going to be standing up,” Hogan said.

The governor said that bringing the youths back to Maryland immediately wasn’t possible.

“They are working on that,” Hogan said of the Department of Human Resources. “But it can’t happen instantaneously. Bringing them back now, we would have nowhere to put them.”

Group home placements have come under more scrutiny in Maryland since the death last fall of Janaia Barnhart, a 15-year-old girl who had been sent to a facility in Delaware.

There are about 37 youths placed by the state in out-of-state group homes, down from about 60 during the same time last year.

“We need to bring that number down much faster and I think we can,” said James.

“We’re going to try to bring back as many of the 37 as possible,” James said “That’s a significant number. There are a handful that have very distinct behavioral needs that, if it’s one youth in Maryland that has that particular need, it would be very difficult to sustain an entire program around that youth. That, we believe, should be the exception.”

James said the youngsters are sent to those facilities “as a last resort.” They represent the most difficult cases, including children with severe developmental or cognitive disabilities who are also considered to have “extremely aggressive behavior and emotional outbreaks” or are self-injurious.

Currently, the department has five children placed at the Judge Rotenberg Center since September of last year. The emergency contract brought before the board Wednesday would allow for the state to send three more to the facility.

“The decision to place the three youth at this program was not an easy one,” James said. “It is not one we were particularly comfortable with.”

As part of the placement, James said, the state contract with the center prohibits the use of certain kinds of behavior management tools, including mechanical restraints. The state also monitors the center through visits and consultations with Massachusetts officials.

That center has been the subject of allegations of abuse. In December, two employees were charged with assaulting and spitting on a student — an incident that was not revealed to members of the Board of Public Works last month.

“Now it is apparent that the two facilities we discussed at the last meeting were not the only ones that had reported incidents of abuse,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, referring to the allegations of abuse of youths at the Rotenberg Center. “Were you aware of those incidents? Is there a reason you didn’t think it was appropriate to inform the Board of Public Works of these issues before asking us to vote to put children in the care of individuals charged, apparently, with reprehensible behavior? We didn’t know it. Did you?”

“I am very sorry for not highlighting the issues with this program when we met with you, appeared before you, to discuss the other programs,” James said. “At that time I was not aware of the December incident with this particular program.”

Franchot vowed to continue to press the issue.

At every board meeting I’m going to ask you or whoever is standing in for you, ‘Where are the eight kids? Are they back here?'” said Franchot.

James offered to update the board every two weeks on the status of the youths placed in out-of-state group homes.

“In a certain sense it’s out of sight, out of mind, when they are sent off to some other state,” Franchot said. “They are out of sight, but they are in my mind. I am going to ask you to bring these three kids back and bring back the five kids up there. Bring them back.”

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