Widespread Failures Plague Michigan Child Welfare System, New Independent Report Shows

DETROIT, MI — A court-ordered analysis of the cases of 460 abused and neglected children in the custody of Michigan’s Department of Human Services (DHS), released today, confirms allegations made by Children’s Rights in a federal class action accusing DHS of systemwide failure to provide children with stable foster care placements, vital services, and adequate protection from further maltreatment.

Issued by the independent nonprofit Children’s Research Center, the report cites serious problems with the agency’s planning for the needs of the children in its care, resulting in significant numbers of children being bounced from one unstable foster placement to another and languishing for unacceptably long periods in the child welfare system. According to the report, DHS also fails to ensure the safety of children placed with relatives, does not provide adequate health services to children in state custody, and exceeds the national norm for maltreatment of children in custody by 150 percent.

The Children’s Research Center was appointed by U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds to conduct the case record review in the federal class action, brought against Michigan by the national child welfare watchdog group Children’s Rights, the international firm McDermott Will & Emery, and local counsel Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton. Known as Dwayne B. v. Granholm, 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.

“This report gives us a comprehensive, objective view of a system that has utterly failed to protect the children in its custody,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “We hope that it serves as a wake-up call toDHS that it is time to stop trying to paper over its problems and start making real improvements for the children whose constitutional rights it is trampling every day.”

Today’s report detailed major problems in several areas of DHS case practice:

  • DHS places children with unlicensed relatives without conducting required checks for safety, criminal, and child abuse violations. While placing children in foster care with relatives (as Michigan has in the cases of about 7,000 children) is considered more desirable than placing them with unrelated foster parents, it is imperative that these placements–which are not subjected to the review process required for licensing–be thoroughly vetted for safety. DHS failed to conduct required safety checks in 73 percent of the cases reviewed in the report, did not conduct required criminal background checks in about 35 percent, and failed to check central registries for child abuse and sexual offenses in over 35 percent.
  • Caseworkers fail to make required visits to children in foster care. Michigan’s own policy requires that caseworkers make two face-to-face contacts with children during their first 30 days in foster care to ensure their safety and well-being, one of which must occur in the home. DHS failed to meet this standard in more than 76 percent of the cases studied–and did not make any contacts within the first month in over 31 percent of the cases. After the first month, caseworkers are required to see children at least once per month–a standard thatDHS failed to meet in nearly 80 percent of the cases. For children in unlicensed care, the results were even worse.
  • Children are being abused and neglected in foster care placements. The national threshold for rates of maltreatment in care, set by the federal Administration for Children and Families, is 0.32 percent. Michigan’s rate is 0.8 percent–two and a half times the federal threshold.
  • DHS bounces children from one unstable placement to another. DHS moves a substantial number of children between multiple placements during their time in custody, further compounding the traumatic effect of being removed from an abusive home. Nearly 41 percent of children in the study were moved at least three times–with a substantial number moved more than 10 times and at least one child who had been through more than 40 placements. According to the report, many of these placement changes resulted from behavioral problems, indicating deficiencies in initial screening and placement decisions.
  • DHS lets children eligible for adoption languish in foster care. On average, children in the study who were legally free to be adopted had been held in foster care for more than 16 months since the termination of their parents’ rights–in many cases because DHS simply failed to notify adoption services that the children had become legally eligible. While Michigan policy requires that notification be made within 14 days, the study could not find any notification dates at all in many cases–and the average time to notification was 72 days.
  • DHS fails to plan adequately for the needs of children in foster care. Standards of good practice and Michigan’s own policies require that initial service plans be developed for children within 30 days of placement in foster care–a critical period following removal from an abusive or neglectful home during which children are particularly vulnerable. On average, caseworkers in Michigan took nearly two full months to complete initial service plans, according to today’s report–and one in five plans were not completed within 90 days.
  • Children in DHS custody are not receiving necessary medical care. DHS is “woefully out of compliance with state policy and federal standards” in conducting required physical and mental health and dental examinations. Nearly 30 percent of the children in the study who required periodic dental examinations received none at all. More than 20 percent did not receive required physical exams. Case readers could not find medical passports–required by Michigan law–for nearly half the cases they reviewed.

“Today’s report provides persuasive evidence of the systemic failures that we intend to remedy for vulnerable children with this lawsuit,” said Edward P. Leibensperger, partner in McDermott Will & Emery.

The full report is available online at www.childrensrights.org.

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Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210