Child Welfare Reform Meets Recession; Recession Wins

A report released today about efforts to overhaul Michigan’s child welfare system shows how the recession gets in the way of reform.

The overhaul is being carried out under a court-monitored consent decree which, in typical fashion, requires the state to spend more money. But what happens when that court order clashes with legislative and executive branch decisions to slash spending in order to deal with a statewide budget crisis, as many states are doing?

The budget cuts win.

“Michigan’s ongoing budget constraints statewide continue to threaten the reforms at every level,” said a statement by Children’s Rights, the New York-based advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit that led to the decree.

Even though fulfilling the decree requires “additional investment,” the report says, an executive order issued by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) last spring forced the Department of Human Services (DHS) to furlough staff and reduce its spending from the general fund by $92.4 million. The department cut 197 child welfare staff positions that had been requested to implement the agreement, the report says, and reduced services identified by the court agreement as “critical.”

The DHS made up for some of the cuts by moving around staffers and funds, and said the declining  numbers of youth under supervision reduced staffers’ caseloads, but the report says that left other decree requirements unfulfilled. 

For anyone who feels sorry for the financial squeeze put on the DHS, the report by monitor Kevin Ryan laments that “the department did not ask the legislature for funds to prevent these cuts. …. Critical services for children and families have been cut at a time when they were expected to grow.”

The report notes that DHS had made some “significant” progress, such as “in returning children home; lowering the rate of entry into care; reducing the inappropriate use of detention; maintaining lower caseloads for foster care staff; and developing the placement and permanency policies they will need to improve outcomes for children.”

Overall, the report says, the department’s performance “weakened” since the first report, issued last year. It  says “thousands of children continue to linger in care without permanent families; too many youth continue to age out of care without healthcare or a permanent home; and too many children remain in unlicensed relative homes.”

Licensing enough kinship care homes has been a major problem. And while the state touted the special units to investigate alleged abuse and neglect of children in care, the report calls the continued maltreatment of children in placement “deeply troubling.”

The report, covering April through September 2009, is the second under the settlement of Dwayne B. v. Granholm in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The agreement was approved by Judge Nancy Edmunds in October 2008, with Ryan of the Public Catalyst Group serving as the monitor to oversee compliances.  Ryan is president of Covenant House, the largest homeless youth services organization in North and Central America, and was previously director of New Jersey’s Department of Human Services.

The importance of these monitors’ reports was underscored by the battle to shape public perception  before this one was released. Yesterday, the DHS held a news conference to boast about how well it was doing. While the department could not cite the unreleased report, Director Ismael Ahmed noted (as reported by The Detroit News) that his department had increased the number of foster children, decreased the number of children in treatment centers and created units in urban counties to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect of children in care.

Then Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) issued a scathing critique of the DHS performance for reporters who might write about the monitor’s report. Using findings from the report, he lambasted the “cruelty, the bureaucratic myopia, the stupidity, and the greed” of DHS and Children’s Rights for making conditions worse for children.

Wexler’s main complaint: “In a senseless quest to force grandparents and other relatives to comply with page after page of hyper-technical licensing rules, nearly 1,800 Michigan children have been thrown out of the homes of those grandparents and other relatives in the year ending September 30, 2009.”

Children’s Rights blames the shortfalls in the reform effort on “ineffective planning and an unfortunate absence of stable leadership.” The department’s chief deputy director resigned, and other shifts in personnel and lines of authority meant, according to the report, that “DHS continues to strive for a stable leadership team overseeing implementation of the agreement, as they restructure responsibilities and integrate new leaders.”

Children’s Rights said it will file a claim with the court this week that “it considers the state to be noncompliant with the court order mandating reform.”


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