Kids Seeing Benefits One Year into Michigan Reforms, But Strong Leadership Needed to Ensure Continued Progress

DETROIT, MI — One year into a massive effort to reform the troubled Michigan child welfare system under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights, a new progress report shows that the state has begun to break a logjam that has kept nearly 10,000 children in foster care waiting years to return home — and made structural changes that will be critical to continued improvements in the care and protection of the approximately 19,000 abused and neglected children who depend on it.

But Children’s Rights advocates representing Michigan’s children say the reform effort is on unstable footing — and that Governor Jennifer Granholm and the leadership of the state Department of Human Services (DHS) must act decisively now to shore up support and secure the resources necessary to complete the work they have begun.

“Important progress has been made in the first year of this sweeping reform effort, and some of Michigan’s longest-suffering children are beginning to see the results,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “But the state’s leaders have too often retreated from their commitments and set back the reforms under economic and other pressures, and they must now redouble their efforts to fulfill the promises they’ve made to Michigan’s vulnerable kids and families.”

A report (PDF) issued Wednesday by the Public Catalyst Group, a team of independent national child welfare experts appointed by the federal court to track the Michigan reforms, evaluates the state’s progress from October 24, 2008 — when the court order mandating the improvements went into effect — through March 31, 2009, the end of the first monitoring period.

The report credits the state with taking swift action to reorganize its child welfare system, creating a centralized Children’s Services Administration dedicated exclusively to providing child welfare services and implementing a new system for collecting data critical to its ability to monitor children and families’ progress, identify problems, and respond quickly.

DHS is also on track to meet ambitious targets for reducing the caseloads of the child welfare workers responsible for foster care, adoption, and child protective services to manageable levels. Fully 95 percent of the state’s foster care workers, some of whom previously labored under caseloads that reached as many as 50 children per caseworker, now carry caseloads of 30 children or fewer. (DHS must further reduce these caseloads to no more than 15 children per foster care worker by October 2011.) Training for child welfare workers has also improved, according to the progress report.

Most important, 1,719 children from a backlog of 5,052 who had been waiting at least a year to be reunited with their families — and sometimes much longer — either went home (1,596 children) or were placed with relatives or adopted (123 children). DHS appears to be on track to move half the children in that backlog into permanent homes by a September 2009 deadline.

But DHS struggled in implementing other reforms, pushed deadlines that it now must work even harder to make up as additional deadlines loom, and cut vital services despite the state’s commitment — and the court’s order — to increase funding for key child welfare programs, and Children’s Rights attorneys say the missteps could endanger further improvements.

In addition to reducing the backlog of children waiting to be reunified with their parents, DHS also committed to do the same for another group of 4,260 children legally free for adoption and awaiting adoptive homes for a year or more — but succeeded in moving only 736 of these children into permanent homes during the first monitoring period. An additional 251 children from this backlog aged out of the Michigan child welfare system without permanent families. And in spite of its commitments to hire a SWAT team of 200 new permanency planning specialists and administrative staff, DHS cut corners by using existing foster care caseworkers to fill some of these key positions.

DHS also mishandled its implementation of a court-ordered requirement to license more than 4,000 families in which relatives of children in state custody have stepped forward to provide foster care — an initiative intended to provide them with financial aid equivalent to the support provided to non-relative foster parents, and to ensure they meet the safety standards required of other foster homes. DHS again failed to staff the positions adequately; during the first monitoring period, the agency achieved a net increase of just 418 children in licensed foster homes.

Additionally, while the court order and recommendations by the Public Catalyst Group called for DHS to increase its financial investment in addressing critical child welfare needs — including $4 million in new funding for programs aimed at keeping vulnerable families together, moving children out of foster care institutions and into permanent families, and providing transitional services and housing for young people aging out of the system — Governor Granholm and DHS are now presiding over an overall reduction in services resulting from tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts.

“There is no question that Michigan faces extremely difficult economic circumstances, but the ultimate effect of these service cuts will be to endanger countless families and children’s lives and rack up more expenses as more children get taken into foster care,” Bartosz said. “The state’s leaders must rally the legislature and the public behind improving these vital supports for the kids and families who continue to be hit hardest by tough economic times.”

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. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a sweeping settlement agreement on July 3, 2008, and it was approved by the court that October.

For more information about Children’s Rights’ ongoing campaign to reform the Michigan child welfare system, including the full text of today’s progress report, please visit www.childrenrights.org/michigan.

Related Press

Report gives Michigan foster care overhaul mixed marks (Detroit Free Press, September 30, 2009)

Funding threatens gains in child welfare reform (Detroit News, September 30, 2009)

In foster care, change is slow (Detroit Free Press, October 1, 2009)