For the past five months, the Baltimore Department of Social Services has been regularly housing children overnight at a downtown office building - allowing them to sleep upright in hard plastic chairs or on thin mattresses on the floor.
The practice is a violation of state law because the facility is not licensed for child care, critics said.
But DSS officials say the office provides temporary shelter for emotionally troubled children who refuse to be placed in group homes or mental institutions. Some juveniles, including a girl who is eight months pregnant, have run away from the office, state officials acknowledged.
Baltimore attorneys who monitor the state-run agency as part of a long-standing consent decree filed a written complaint with the state attorney general's office yesterday and called in a report on DSS' own abuse and neglect hot line.
One of the attorneys, Mitchell Y. Mirviss, said court action could follow because DSS had violated the terms of the 16-year-old decree, which sets explicit standards of care.
"I can't tell you how upsetting it is to imagine these kids having to sit in chairs all night," said Mirviss, who toured the building, in the 300 block of N. Gay St., with DSS Director Samuel Chambers Jr. on Friday, three days after he found out that children were staying there overnight, in one instance for a week.
"I'm still appalled and disgusted."
Mirviss said that on the tour he discovered that the boys slept on plastic chairs in a sparsely furnished lobby with a wall-mounted television, while the girls slept on chairs or one of four thin mattresses in a multipurpose room with a radio and a television on loan from another office.
There were no blankets, pillows or towels visible, and no showers, he said.
Adult supervisors, who spend the night with the children, bring in McDonald's and other fast food.
"It's stupefying," the attorney said yesterday. "They have protective service workers in there who see the children in this condition and they are not doing anything about it apparently."
Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, who has been under pressure to reform DSS, and who brought in Chambers to do so, said the Gay Street office was opened about a year ago to provide 24-hour service to foster children, seven days a week.
The office has worked well, he said, but word of its after-hours status has spread, and now police and other social workers drop off children at all hours of the day and night.
"The Gay Street office is not a drop-off center for troubled kids," McCabe said. "It is not licensed to be a drop-off center.
"The community has to help us to find other options and create more resources for these kids."
On Friday, McCabe said, he used emergency funds to pay for 30 slots at specialized facilities that could house the disturbed youths.
He said he is working with Chambers to open a licensed shelter that would accommodate foster children overnight if there were placement problems.
Neither McCabe nor Chambers would say how the children came to sleep at the Gay Street office, although they both acknowledged that it should never have happened.
Chambers, who has been on the job as chief of the state-run agency for about seven months, said he was struggling to pin down the exact cause of the problem but believes that it might be attributed to a surge of children with severe mental illness.
These children - most of them teenagers - have learned to use the system to get out of going to group homes or mental institutions that they consider to be more restrictive, he said.
Instead, they demand to go to the Gay Street office, in part, Chambers said, because they know it is easier to leave the office, even though adults stay with them through the night.
'A safe place'
"We are trying to figure out why Gay Street has become so popular," Chambers said. "My best interpretation is that they think it is a safe place where they can get their initial needs met and then they can leave."
Chambers said it is fairly routine for teenagers to leave the office.
He said he had heard about the pregnant girl who ran away but could not say whether she had returned or been found.
In hindsight, he said, he wished he and his staff had reacted more swiftly to the troubling trend.
"I don't think the system fully anticipated this sharp increase in the severity of the mental illnesses out there and the numbers that would fall into this category," Chambers said.
"I have been struggling in dealing with this to come up with answers. ... I am watching this every day."
Mirviss and other advocates blasted the men for placing the blame on the victims.
Lack of funding
They complained about a dearth of shelters for teenagers in the city and criticized Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration for failing to financially support a foster care system that needs total overhaul.
"It certainly disturbs me," said Charlie Cooper, who administers the state-funded Citizens Review Board for Children. Cooper said his group, including 250 volunteers across the state, has been advocating for more money to fill gaps in the foster care system.
He said the 2005-2006 state budget includes $1 million to rebuild the foster family roster, which has lost 700 families since April 2002, but that sum is not enough.
"We've been going around and talking to a lot of people and saying think big," he said. "$1 million isn't that big."
Other advocates refuted Chambers' theory that the type of youth moving through the system has changed.
"It is clearly a challenging group of children, but there isn't any momentous thing that has changed about this group," said Joan Little, chief attorney of the Baltimore Child Advocacy Unit at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. "They are pretty much what they were last year and the year before."
Little said attorneys at the bureau had talked to children who said they were staying at the Gay Street office but no one knew they were sleeping there.
She said she has spoken with teenagers who resist placement at mental institutions but found it hard to believe that they would prefer an office building.
"Generally what they are saying is, 'I'd prefer to be with a family or in a shelter,'" she said. "They are not saying, 'Let me sleep in a chair.'"