Michigan Reforms Stall and Too Many Children Remain Stranded in Foster Care; Stable Leadership Needed Immediately

DETROIT, MI — After making some initial progress in a comprehensive child welfare reform effort required under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights, a new progress report shows Michigan has still not found safe, permanent families for thousands of children stranded in foster care, and is at risk of backsliding further unless the state immediately stabilizes its management team and structure.

Ineffective planning and an unfortunate absence of stable leadership have stalled efforts to provide permanent homes for large numbers of children who have been stranded for years in foster care — allowing far too many children to languish and age out of care without a place to call home, according to the report (PDF), issued today by independent experts appointed by the court to monitor the reforms.

Due to the lack of progress in this and other critical areas, Children’s Rights will put DHS officials on formal notice this week that it considers the state to be noncompliant with the court order mandating reform. The parties will then be required to work together with the expert monitor for the following 30 days to explore ways to remedy these issues and get the reforms back on track. If these efforts do not succeed, Children’s Rights could seek further court intervention.

“This report sends a clear message to Michigan’s leaders that they must stabilize their child welfare team and start delivering better results for the tens of thousands of vulnerable children whose lives and well-being depend on them,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights and lead attorney on the case. “While we understand this reform effort is a significant undertaking and will no doubt take time to implement successfully, it cannot succeed if key leadership positions continue to change hands and if required reforms continue to go unimplemented.”

Issued by the Public Catalyst Group, today’s report — the second since the 2008 settlement of a class action brought against Michigan by Children’s Rights and co-counsel on behalf of approximately 19,000 children dependent on the state-run child welfare system — evaluates progress made by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) over the six-month period between April 1 and September 30, 2009. It details several areas in which DHS has failed to make adequate improvements:

  • Too many children and older youth continue to wait for stable, permanent homes. More than 6,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system are still waiting for permanent homes and more than half of the children already legally free for adoption nonetheless have waited more than a year for their adoptions to be finalized. Youth who do not find permanent families age out of foster care with inadequate preparation and a lack of adult connections.
  • Youth aging out of foster care continue to face dismal outcomes. Eight percent of legally-free children aged out of the system without permanent homes in the last monitoring period, and the majority of older youth in care still lack adequate health insurance. Youth who leave foster care without permanent families or appropriate supports are far more likely to experience challenges with substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, and mental and medical health issues.
  • Some caseloads remain dangerously high. When child welfare workers are overburdened by too many cases, vulnerable children and families cannot receive the necessary attention and services they need. In Michigan, 37 percent of workers responsible for monitoring ongoing child protective service cases, including overseeing children placed into foster care, are carrying caseloads larger than 30 children each. Adoption workers are also continuing to carry caseloads that are too large.

While the challenges noted in the report loom large for DHS, the report recognized the state’s progress in a few key areas. Those improvements over the last six months include an indication the state is returning more children home to their birth families and the state is increasing the use of family settings for children without severe therapeutic needs in care instead of institutions.

Michigan’s ongoing budget constraints statewide continue to threaten the reforms at every level. The report notes that the state was often forced to divert resources from some areas of reform to support others, and even cut local county services to children and families by 20 percent in FY2009.

“Although we recognize that economic conditions have been particularly severe in the state of Michigan, it is essential that direct services for kids and families remain a top priority in Michigan,” Bartosz said.

Today’s report is the second monitoring report issued since Children’s Rights filed the child welfare reform class action, known as Dwayne B. v. Granholm, in 2006 with Edward Leibensperger of the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and Michigan-based law firm Keinbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton.

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

Related Press

Report: State falls short on court-ordered child reforms (Detroit News, March 9, 2010)

Report: State foster care improving, but still lags (Detroit Free Press, March 9, 2010)

Child Welfare Reform Meets Recession; Recession Wins (Youth Today, March 9, 2010)

Group: Foster Kids Need Changes Faster (Detroit Free Press, March 10, 2010)

Report: Michigan Child Welfare Reforms Fall Short (Detroit News, March 10, 2010)

Improvements in foster care are far from good enough (Detroit Free Press, March 10, 2010)