Report Blames Michigan Child Welfare System for Abuse, Death of Children in Foster Care

DETROIT, MI — Likening the management of Michigan’s Department of Human Services to “blindfolded school bus drivers,” unable to see and respond to impending dangers to the children in its custody, a scathing new report by an expert in Children’s Rights’ child welfare reform lawsuit against the state of Michigan lays the blame for several children’s deaths squarely at the agency’s feet.

The report, issued by an independent consultant with more than 30 years of experience working in child protective services, examines the cases of five children who died in DHS custody — some from extreme physical abuse — and provides a long and detailed list of failures throughout the department’s management and investigations of alleged abuse and neglect in DHS foster care placements that, it says, render DHS incapable of protecting the children in its care. (The full report can be found here.)

Today’s report corroborates the findings of another released last week that examined DHS’s management in close detail (characterizing its practices as a “formula for disaster”) as well as findings from a review of 460 individual cases of children in DHS custody — and concludes that DHS has knowingly used misleading calculations to obscure the rate at which children in its custody suffer maltreatment. According to both last week’s case review and today’s report, Michigan’s rate of maltreatment in foster care is two and a half times the standard deemed acceptable by the federal government.

“While the Michigan Department of Human Services has tried to distance itself from the disastrous results of its dangerous practices, children have been dying in its custody and on its watch,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “Today’s report reveals the stories behind the statistics, and illustrates in no uncertain terms what is at stake if DHS does not commit to real reform immediately.”

The children whose cases are highlighted in today’s report include:

  • Elizabeth, whose family became known to DHS after she suffered a brutal physical attack in her home when she was just 14 days old, leaving her with a fractured skull, three fractured ribs, and a fractured clavicle. Elizabeth was made a ward of DHS but was returned to her home, leaving a child placing agency contracted by DHS in charge of monitoring her. This agency failed to forward two reports to DHS with additional evidence of Elizabeth’s abuse — including severe burns and two black eyes — until after Elizabeth was found beaten to death in her home.
  • Heather, a 15-year-old girl whose serious psychiatric problems went untreated by DHS while she was placed in a filthy, chaotic home with an aunt and uncle unlicensed to provide foster care, where a total of 17 people crowded into a three-bedroom house with only one bathroom. Heather eventually ran away to South Carolina, was abandoned there by DHS, and hanged herself.
  • Brandon, a seven-week-old boy who was placed in an overcrowded DHS foster home with five other children — three of whom had serious behavioral and mental health problems — and died of apparent suffocation when his foster mother left him unattended.
  • Isaac, murdered at the age of two in a foster home that had been the subject of nine Child Protective Services (CPS) complaints before his placement there. Less than two months after arriving in the home, Isaac was found beaten to death, covered in burns and bruises and having suffered multiple bone fractures. “An overloaded and apparently incompetent caseworker placed Isaac in dangerous foster homes, failed to visit him regularly, and overlooked evidence of Isaac’s maltreatment,” says the report. “DHS’s actions and inactions, and those of its contractor, caused Isaac’s death.”
  • James, who died of blunt-force trauma to the head in a DHS foster home just a few months shy of his fourth birthday. Despite the medical examiner’s finding that James’s death was a homicide, DHS’s vague definition of the term “abuse” enabled the agency to conclude in its own investigation that there was not a preponderance of evidence that James had been abused.

The report cites widespread systemic problems throughout DHS that it says created the conditions that contributed to these children’s deaths—and place the 19,000 children currently in DHS custody in similarly grave danger. According to the report:

  • The structure of DHS is diffuse and inefficient. The department is responsible for a very broad range of services–including Michigan’s welfare, disability assistance, Medicaid, juvenile justice, and child support programs, among many others–but lacks a division devoted specifically to child welfare. Components of the child welfare system are scattered throughout the department, diluting accountability and impeding the communication of critical information. DHS management is structured, says the report, “as if to minimize expert focus on child welfare and to all but preclude the effective protection of its foster children.”
  • DHS managers lack the education and experience necessary to run a child welfare system. National standards for good practice call for directors of child welfare agencies to hold graduate degrees in human services and demonstrate competence in the delivery of child welfare services. Relevant advanced degrees are the exception among top DHS staff, and few have any child welfare experience at all.
  • DHS fails to adequately investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in foster care placements. The department’s investigations are unstructured, superficial, and rarely gather sufficient information to determine accurately whether maltreatment has occurred. Furthermore, says the report, DHS investigators “often make determinations that are not consistent with the facts.”
  • DHS has no quality assurance program and is unable to produce reliable data about its practices and outcomes. The statistical information necessary to guide the operation of the agency at every level–and to identify systemic problems–either does not exist or cannot be trusted. When disturbing data does surface, little is done about it. And the agency calculates some statistics–including its rate of maltreatment in foster care–in a misleading manner that hides the danger to which it subjects the children in its custody.

The report further notes that DHS’s shortage of caseworkers would be enough by itself to preclude the agency from adequately protecting the children in its care–and echoes concerns raised by last week’s case review that the agency places children in unlicensed foster homes with relatives as a means of maintaining a “second class” of placements that receive neither appropriate safety and criminal background checks nor adequate financial support.

“Combining the disturbing deficiencies in MDHS’s performance in the five cases reviewed with the many serious shortcomings found in the agency’s structure, regulation, practices, overall management, and — especially — staff resources, it is clear that children are far too likely to be no safer in foster care than they were with their abusive and neglectful parents,” the report concludes.

Today’s report will be offered as evidence in the federal class action known as Dwayne B. v. Granholm, brought against Michigan by the national child welfare watchdog group Children’s Rights, the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery, and local counsel Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton. The lawsuit charges the state with violating the constitutional rights of the approximately 19,000 children in its custody by failing to protect their safety and well-being and find them permanent homes.

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