Steps Forward, Steps Backward on Michigan’s Responsibility

As we debate public responsibility for many things, there cannot be any argument about our public responsibility for the children who we have removed from their families and placed in the care of the state.  In 2008, a Federal court oversaw a settlement agreement between the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) and a national children’s rights group who asserted that we were not fulfilling our end of this bargain with children and families involved in our child protective services system.  This month, the sixth settlement progress report was released, assessing efforts made over the first six months of 2012.

We need to commend DHS for progress made, as cited in the federal monitors’ report:

  • Increased placements with relative guardians.  Under pressure to improve our record for permanent placements for children and youth removed from their families, DHS has stepped up their use of guardianship.  In fact, 70% of the children permanently placed out of foster care were placed under guardianship with relatives.  We know from research that when kids are removed, placement with relatives is generally less traumatic and more successful than placement with non-relatives.
  • Supporting youth “aging out” of foster care:   Continuing earlier practice, DHS committed to maintaining Medicaid coverage to youth after leaving foster care as independent – over 97% of the eligible youth were covered after their foster care case was terminated.  In addition, Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative (MYOI) programs continue to operate in counties around the state, funded and supported by the Jim Casey Foundation and other partners.  Though MYOI results in the three counties reviewed by the monitors were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.  The work of these initiatives is to provide information, training and supportive services related to education, employment, housing, physical and mental health, permanency, and social and community engagement.  Though MYOI results in the three counties were mixed, efforts to coordinate services and increase skill sets for older foster youth are essential.

Unfortunately, monitors noted that Michigan did not improve on the following crucial pieces:

  • Timeliness of reunification.   Often the best option for kids is placement back into the family after services are provided.  Michigan fell behind other states when it came to timeliness of reunification with the family following removal from home.
  • Length of stay in foster care.  Michigan kids stay an average of 11 months in foster care, compared to the national average of less than 8 months.
  • Opportunities for contact.  For children in foster care, there are few elements more critical than visits between caseworker and child, caseworker and parent, and child and their parents.  Michigan failed to meet agreed upon standards pertaining to frequency of these visits.
  • Availability of out-of-home placement options.  Michigan is lagging in licensing relative homes for placement, and is having difficulty meeting the standard of no more than three children placed in any single foster home.

The goal of the Department of Human Services, also demanded through the lawsuit settlement is to quickly connect families to services following a child’s removal to strengthen connections that result in either a child’s timely return home or safe placement as soon as possible.   Support for families must come from various community-based sources – sources whose support from state resources has been cut almost entirely over the last ten years.  In addition, the fact remains that the child welfare system continues to serve a disproportionate share of children from families living in poorer communities and from families of color.

According to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Databook, confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect rose by nearly 30% between 2005 and 2011, and over 80% of those cases involved neglect.  For families who struggle the most to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children, the need for early prevention programs has never been more critical.  The lack of adequate funding for home visiting and other family support programming and behavioral health services for adults and children, as well as the dismantling of basic financial support programs like food, cash and child care assistance runs contrary to what is necessary to improve outcomes in the child welfare system.

Fueled by the lawsuit, private philanthropic resources, and good administrative decision-making, DHS has made positive steps towards improving child protection services; but without adequate funding, Michigan cannot ensure that all families have the supports they need to provide a safe and healthy home environment for their children.  The Governor did increase resource in his budget recommendation for DHS staffing, but did not increase investments in other areas of that budget.  The Legislature went on spring break without giving us a glimpse of what they are planning for DHS funding, but they have the opportunity when they return to promote investments that have proven track records in halting child maltreatment, particularly for those families most challenged by their circumstances.

To learn more about DHS’s progress towards improving the child welfare system, visit the DHS website.

To keep posted on the state budget process, see Michigan’s Children’s Budget Basics.

-William Long

William is the former Interim President & CEO of Michigan’s Children, former Executive Director of the Michigan Federation for Children & Families, and current Eaton County DHS Board member.