DETROIT, MI — A settlement agreement mandating top-to-bottom reform and federal court oversight of Michigan’s long-failing child welfare system has been reached in the federal class action brought against the state by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and a team of attorneys from Michigan and across the country. The settlement, to be submitted for preliminary court approval, would resolve the lawsuit known as Dwayne B. v. Granholm, filed in 2006 on behalf of the approximately 19,000 abused and neglected children in the custody of Michigan’s Department of Human Services (DHS).
The court-enforceable agreement requires DHS to establish a Children’s Services Administration dedicated exclusively to providing protection, treatment, and services to children in state custody and those who have been reported for abuse or neglect. The agency must take aggressive action to move more than 6,000 children who cannot return home into safe, stable, permanent homes; improve investigations of reported child abuse and neglect; reduce the occurrence of maltreatment in foster care placements; recruit and retain an adequate group of potential foster and adoptive parents; and provide adequate medical, mental health, and dental care to children in state custody. The state’s progress in complying with the agreement will be overseen by a monitor who will report to the federal court.
“After years of looking the other way as its child welfare system failed and children suffered and died needlessly as a result, Michigan has finally made a court-enforceable commitment to begin fixing its problems and producing better results for the children who depend on it,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights. “The required reforms will take considerable time and effort to implement, but they are both achievable and necessary, and Children’s Rights will remain involved as long as necessary to ensure that they take hold.”
Among the specific requirements of the agreement:
- DHS must improve its investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect and keep the children in its custody safer. DHS will establish a statewide child protective services (CPS) hotline, create dedicated CPSunits to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, increase caseworker visits to foster homes and facilities, and initiate regular safety reviews to ensure that children taken into state custody do not suffer further maltreatment.
- DHS must take aggressive action to move children out of custody and into safe, stable, permanent homes. DHS will hire, train, and deploy a dedicated workforce of 200 new permanency specialists to address the needs of the more than 6,000 legal orphans who have languished in foster care for long periods of time. Additionally, the agency will begin planning simultaneously for children’s reunification with their birth families and for their adoption in case reunification proves not to be possible.
- DHS must provide adequate financial support and safety measures for children placed in foster homes with relatives. DHS will engage 40 new licensing specialists to secure licenses for the approximately 7,000 unlicensed relative foster homes in Michigan. Without licenses, relatives who provide foster homes for abused and neglected children are not eligible for the financial support available to other foster families to help them provide for the basic needs of the children in their care, and they are not subject to the safety assessments that other foster homes undergo.
- DHS must provide adequate medical, mental health, and dental services for the children in its custody.DHS will be required to meet the benchmarks for these services established by the American Academy of Pediatrics, undertaking a systemwide assessment to determine what it must do to meet the standards of the settlement agreement.
- DHS must improve recruitment of foster and adoptive families. DHS will undertake a systemwide assessment to determine where and how many additional foster care and adoptive placements are needed, and will design and implement a recruitment plan to meet these needs.
- DHS must fix longstanding organizational problems. DHS will establish a Children’s Services Administration dedicated exclusively to child welfare functions, headed by a director at the rank of deputy director of DHS or higher. The agency will also create a dedicated child welfare quality assurance unit in its central office to monitor the care it provides.
- DHS must provide better training for child welfare caseworkers and reduce their caseloads to manageable levels. Caseloads for all child welfare workers at DHS will be lowered to meet the standards recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, and new and improved training regimens will be mandated for workers at all levels.
- DHS must fully implement a statewide system for collecting and analyzing child welfare data. Through regular reports on children’s outcomes, management issues, and other key measures, DHS will improve its ability to monitor its own performance and correct problems when they arise.
“We have reached a critical milestone in this campaign to correct the injustices that abused and neglected children in Michigan’s custody have lived with for too long,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights and lead counsel on the case. “The reforms required by this settlement will ensure that they receive at last the care and protection that all children are guaranteed under the Constitution and under the law.”
The Dwayne B. federal class action, brought against Michigan by Children’s Rights, the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery, and local counsel Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton, charged 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. An earlier proposed settlement negotiated in early 2007 was abandoned by the state in May of that year, sending plaintiffs into preparations for trial.
The settlement agreement must be presented to the federal judge for approval at a fairness hearing to be scheduled.
“This is a major victory for the abused and neglected children of Michigan, who will now stand a much better chance of receiving the care and protection they deserve and desperately need,” said Edward P. Leibensperger, partner in McDermott Will & Emery.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210