The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) is not the biggest fan of Ismael Ahmed, the director of Michigan's Department of Human Services, an agency that last year agreed with nonprofit litigator Children's Rights on a reform plan.
You probably won't see NCCPR Executive Director Richard Wexler and Children's Rights boss Marcia Lowry eating ice cream cones in the park together, either. Wexler - who won't even write out the name of Lowry's organization without preceding it with something like, "The group that calls itself...," - seems to respect CR's desire to force systems to act right but is often peeved at the remedies CR believes are necessary to achieve that end.
So it's not surprising that Tapeworm in the System, NCCPR's new advocacy piece about Michigan DHS's use of institutions, blasts both Ahmed and CR. Ahmed has talked the talk on helping families stay together, Wexler writes, but endorses a budget that NCCPR said reveals a "pro-provider anti-prevention agenda." Children's Rights' lawsuit, which set this entire process in motion, "read like a thinly-disguised attempt to transfer resources away from birth families and into the pockets of private agencies and middle-class strangers serving as foster families to poor people's children."
This is typical Wexler, using what he calls the "give 'em hell" approach to advocacy. And whether you agree with his specific views or not, his methods are worth studying, as evidenced by his first go-round with Michigan.
NCCPR's first report, Cycle of Failure, honed in on what the organization saw as a "war on grandparents" that was spurred by the Children's Rights lawsuit. At issue was the fact that, per the consent decree between CR and Michigan, an attempt would be made to license the homes of all relatives caring for youths removed from their homes. An October memo from DHS said:
Effective October 1, 2008, children entering DHS foster care custody or being re-placed cannot be placed in the home of a relative unless the relative is willing and able to be licensed as a foster family home.
NCCPR issued its report in February. The next month, Michigan DHS softened its position with a follow-up memorandum outlining the circumstances in which relative caregivers could seek reprieve from formal licensing.
"I certainly don't think our report was the only reason" for the change, Wexler said. "But it wouldn't have happened without us."
It's clear what NCCPR wants to change with report number two: Michigan's use of institutions - which by definition are homes for 12 or more youths - as placement options for foster children. Just over 15 percent of youth in the system are placed in these institutions each year, according to documents provided by DHS to the federal government.
"One-size-fits-all is what Michigan has now, and the one size is institutionalization," Wexler said, an example of his penchant to, at times, opt for flourish over accuracy (since 85 percent of the children in care are not housed in a way he describes as the one size).
CR Senior Staff Attorney Sara Bartosz disagreed with Wexler on the placement numbers, telling CW Today that Michigan relied on institutions less than the average state. Not true: the national average for institution placement is 10.2 percent, although Michigan reports so few youths in group homes (those with fewer than 12 people) that its total placements to congregate care (institutions plus group homes) does come in line with national standards. There were 3,103 youths in institutions in 2006, and only 46 in group homes.
Will this report serve as the same kind of catalyst as the first one? It certainly will be harder to elicit change this time, for political reasons. There wasn't exactly money in the balance with the last change prodded by NCCPR; nobody lost dollars because DHS took a more reasoned approach to sanctioning relative caregivers. Curtailing how many youth are taken in by large residential organizations would certainly affect those groups' bottom lines, which means possible job losses in a state that has lost more than its share during this economic spiral.
Wexler said the only way Michigan will move the dial on institutionalization is if child advocates can find a way to work with the state's fiscal conservatives. He believes the fiscal conservatives can be sold on the idea that the state could save money without sacrificing safety by cutting back on institutional placement. "Both have an interest in curbing institutions," Wexler said.
It isn't an easy partnership - since child advocates are often pushing against financial hawks - but it isn't without recent precedent. In the juvenile justice field, rehabilitation-minded advocates have pined for less reliance on locked facilities for decades. Recently, successful attempts at closures have been aided by fiscal conservatives who were convinced of the cost-benefits by organizations such as Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.