Monitor Levels Sharp Criticism at Michigan Child Welfare System

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The independent court monitor in Michigan’s child welfare reform court case has serious concerns about the state’s ability to keep track of children in care and doubts about its capacity to deliver promised improvements.

In a stinging 200-page third-period report released today, monitor Kevin Ryan suggests that the incoming governor should seek new leadership for the troubled Department of Human Services.  

“With the election of a new governor, Michigan has an opportunity to build a high-level leadership team that can coordinate the work of this reform effectively and improve the partnerships within DHS and between DHS and the many private agencies that serve children and families in Michigan,” he wrote.

The reform was triggered by a consent decree signed by DHS and Children’s Rights, a nonprofit litigation firm based in New York.

If Children's Rights has its way, Gov.-elect Rick Snyder (R) may not have a choice about who oversees the agency. The group announced today that it will seek a federal takeover of the state's system.

Update: The Detroit News reported that Children's Rights has backed off its plan to request a federal takeover after the judge in charge of the case received assurances today from Gov.-elect Snyder that child welfare reform would be a top priority.

“DHS leadership has failed to live up to its promises for too long, and children and families are suffering because of their failures," Sara Bartosz," an attorney with Children's Rights, said in a statement to the Detroit News. "Now is the time to re-energize Michigan’s reform effort, and we are asking the court to appoint someone who can do just that.”

Ryan’s report disclosed that the department failed to account for more than 1,000 children in care, a discrepancy that was discovered using the department’s own statistics. At the same time, Ryan reported, the department’s substantial failure to meet requirements from the second deadline forced DHS to meet those demands while taking on new goals for the third reform deadline. In some instances, Ryan said, it has caused regression.

“DHS leadership has not been able to offer sufficient support, guidance, and resources necessary to focus, prioritize and sequence the work,” Ryan wrote. “Unless there is a fundamental adjustment in their approach to this undertaking, it is unlikely this reform will reach most of the children and families of the Michigan child welfare system in the foreseeable future.”

Ryan’s monitoring team noticed a discrepancy in the number of children in care when DHS presented them with the following numbers: how many children were in care at the end of the second reporting period, the number who had entered and exited care during the third period, and the number of children in care at the end of that period.

“The monitoring team immediately noticed a problem using basic addition and subtraction,” Ryan reported. When DHS and the monitors figured out the correct calculations, there were 1,511 who were in care who had not been counted and 270 children who should have been excluded.

The report does not specify where those children were who were not counted, although it suggests that some discrepancy was caused by time lags. In that case, a child would have actually come into care in a previous period but was not officially entered as “in care” until months later.

The criticisms leveled at DHS in the report include:

– Removal of scores of children from kinship placements because the relatives’ homes could not meet strict guidelines for foster care. DHS closed 1,131 homes for failing to meet licensing standards in the third perid, compared with 1,056 new licensures.

– Progress on finding permanent placement for children who were awaiting adoption was “woefully inadequate.” The goal is for 85 percent of the original backlog of children to be placed by the end of period four (September 2011); as of now, only 39 percent of them have found permanent homes. There was a 28 percent increase in children aging out of foster care without a permanency plan.

– Filure to achieve many of the caseload standards set in the consent decree “by a wide margin.” The agreement was for 95 percent of DHS adoption workers to handle fewer than 30 children, and 95 percent of child protective services workers to have fewer than 16 children.

 Click here to read the report.