Advocates Call for Immediate Improvements for Foster Youth as Michigan Reform Falters

DETROIT, MICH. – Two years into a comprehensive court-ordered effort secured by national advocacy group Children’s Rights to reform Michigan’s failing child welfare system, a new progress report shows thousands of children are still stranded in foster care waiting for safe, permanent families and more youth are aging out of foster care without homes or skills to live on their own.

While the Department of Human Services (DHS) has made some progress increasing the overall number of adoptions finalized and serving more children in family settings rather than in institutions, Tuesday’s report (PDF) by the independent monitor charged with monitoring the state’s reform efforts reveals serious systemic deficiencies, including continued high caseloads for caseworkers and a failure to recruit and retain enough foster homes.

“Unfortunately, DHS leadership has increasingly fallen behind, and worse, lost ground on important fronts,” writes the federal monitor. “There is a palpable sense of disappointment with the reform effort across the system, which has only grown over time.”

“This campaign for reform was not about simply securing a promise of change from the state, but about securing actual change for thousands of abused and neglected kids in foster care,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “After two years of disappointing progress, the course of this reform effort must be corrected immediately to bring rapid improvements to the lives of abused and neglected children statewide who have nowhere else to turn for protection and care.”

Tuesday’s report highlighted several ongoing failures at DHS, the worst of which include:

  • Too many children continue to wait too long in foster care for permanent homes. Despite the state’s promise to focus on a large backlog of youth who have been available for adoption as of January 2009, DHSwas only able to find permanent homes for an additional six percent of kids — leaving more than 2,000 children stranded in foster care for at least two years, and many times much longer than that.
  • More youth are leaving foster care without a family or the necessary skills to live on their own. Michigan saw a 28 percent increase in the number of children aging out of foster care without a permanent family between FY2008 and FY2009. The state has contributed to this problem by failing to live up to its promises to adequately support youth in foster care through age 20 and provide services through age 21.
  • A number of caseworkers continue to be overloaded with too many cases and inadequately trained to handle them. Nearly half of the caseworkers responsible for investigating child abuse and neglect allegations and monitoring children’s safety at home with their parents are carrying caseloads larger than the maximum specified by the settlement agreement, and DHS’s previous progress in reducing caseloads for adoption workers is now slipping. Additionally, DHS isn’t ensuring newly hired staff are fully trained before investigating child abuse and neglect allegations and taking on new cases.
  • DHS continues to fail in recruiting and licensing foster and relative homes for children in state custody.Today’s report shows DHS is backsliding in its ability to recruit and license new foster and relative homes for children in state care, and in fact lost more homes than it was able to recruit and license.

DHS is also still unable to provide complete and accurate data about the children and families in the system, considerably affecting the state’s ability not only to implement the reforms, but also to manage the system. For example, because of an inconsistent data collection system flawed by severe data lags and hand counts, DHS is unable to accurately report on how many children have suffered abuse and neglect in the state’s custody.

Issued by Public Catalyst, the new report — the third 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 in custody of the state child welfare system — evaluates the progress made by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) over the six-month period between October 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010.

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.