Children Still at Risk of Harm in Michigan Foster Care; DHS’ Safety Record Remains Well Short of Federal Standards

Agency ‘Can’t Manage What They Can’t Measure,’ Warns Children’s Rights

 (Detroit) — Too many children in Michigan foster care remain at risk of harm almost seven years after officials agreed to reform its failing child welfare system, and the state is unable to track its progress in other critical areas because of ongoing issues with its year-old data management system, according to a report released today.

That report — which independent monitors submitted to U.S. Judge Nancy Edmunds — covers the state agency’s performance between January 1 and April 24, 2014. It is the tenth to be issued since Michigan reached a settlement with national advocacy organization Children’s Rights in 2008, and the sixth since the parties signed off on a Modified Settlement Agreement (MSA) in 2011 to put the stalled reform effort back on track.

According to federal data, the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) lags far behind the majority of states when it comes to protecting children from harm. The monitors called this “a persistent and dire problem,” noting that DHS should have protected at least 1,240 more children from repeat maltreatment (a federal indicator that measures the recurrence of maltreatment within six months), and an additional 434 children from abuse or neglect in foster care since the start of the MSA.

The monitors also reported that DHS has not met a number of additional commitments in the MSA that are designed to protect children from harm.  For example, DHS has largely failed to implement a system for overseeing the prescription and administration of psychotropic medication to kids in DHS’s custody.

“Unfortunately these results are not surprising, given that the state is still relying on unlicensed foster homes, inconsistent caseworker visits and institutions that are at times harming children,” said Sara Bartosz, lead counsel for Children’s Rights. “Michigan is performing at the bottom of the barrel according to federal measures for safety. It is completely unacceptable that officials have failed to build a foundation to protect already-traumatized children.”

The report shows that during the monitoring period:

  • Institutions were responsible for at least 32 separate violations involving improper, unnecessary or injurious restraining of children;
  • Of 69 agencies reviewed by DHS’ own licensure staff, 71 percent used at least one foster home or unlicensed relative that was already known to pose a health or safety risk to children;
  • Of the 2,858 relatives providing homes for children, 1,226 did not have active licenses or approved license waivers;
  • In all, twenty two percent of children in foster care lived in unlicensed relative homes, which is where 40 percent of substantiated abuse and neglect occurred.
  • DHS has apparently failed to implement any of the placement protections for children contained in the MSA, including to regulate the number of children in a foster home and to minimize the placement of children in temporary and emergency facilities such as shelters.

Another issue that DHS continues to confront is stabilizing its new child welfare data system, which became operational on April 24, 2014. Implementation problems have included data conversion errors, data entry problems and the continued need for numerous software repairs.  This has meant that caseworkers and supervisors are struggling day-to-day with children’s cases not being assigned to caseworkers correctly, failed payments to agencies and foster parents, and deleted health insurance cards that interfere with children’s medical care and necessary prescriptions, among other issues.

It also means that many MSA benchmarks cannot be measured. Monitors found a number of discrepancies in the data that was provided for period 6. These include: data on special investigations; the failure to report violations, including abuse and neglect; the number of relatives providing care; and figures for well-child exams for children under 36 months. DHS itself expressed concerns to the monitors that visitation data is not accurate because of a lack of system functionality.

“Simply put, the state can’t manage what it can’t measure,” said Bartosz. “Implementing a comprehensive data management system is no small feat, but the state is being granted ample time to work out the kinks. We want to see that officials are making rapid strides until everything runs smoothly. Until then, more of Michigan’s most vulnerable children will fall through the cracks.”

Children’s Rights filed the child welfare reform class action known as Dwayne B. v. Granholm in August 2006, with Edward Leibensperger of the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and Michigan-based law firm Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton.