UPDATE, APRIL 27: The Task Force issued its final report today. There appear to be almost no changes from the draft discussed below. But the press release has that Orwellian tinge one comes to expect from child welfare agencies after awhile. It describes the report as urging the Michigan Department of Human Services to "continue reforming its child welfare system to further focus on community-based services that strengthen, preserve and re-unify families..." [emphasis added] when, in fact, DHS has been moving in the opposite direction.
When Ismael Ahmed was brought in to run the Michigan Department of Human Services, he replaced a far more knowledgeable director who had committed the ultimate crime in Michigan child welfare: trying to put the needs of the children ahead of the needs of the state's "foster care-industrial complex" – it's network of powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care.
So perhaps it was inevitable that, almost from the moment he took the job, Ahmed made clear that he would do pretty much whatever the providers wanted him to do.
Of course he also sought cover by doing what leaders of child welfare agencies in trouble always do, naming what I've come to call an OBRC – Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission. In this case, he named an 85 member Child Welfare Improvement Task Force, which included plenty of representatives of the foster-care industrial complex (and, commendably, current and former foster children) - but almost no birth parents.
The CWITF is huge, it's clunky, it's bureaucratic – complete with "logic models," a committee to "synthesize" the work of other committees and enough use of Power Point to ensure that Microsoft survives the recession – and it leaves birth parents out. In short, it's a pretty good metaphor for Michigan child welfare. So Ahmed, who co-chairs the commission, may have figured he'd get a set of provider-friendly recommendations and that would be that.
But it's not quite working out that way. And while NCCPR certainly isn't the only reason, we'll take credit for part of it. Last fall, we promised to work to push the CWITF to offer more family-friendly recommendations. We did not promise to ask nicely – they tried that for decades in Michigan and it didn't work.
In multiple posts to this Blog, in op ed columns and meetings with reporters, in our comprehensive report on Michigan child welfare and in our Michigan Rate-of-Removal Index, both available here, we were, as always, blunt. That won't change when we issue our next report, on Michigan's misuse and overuse of institutions, in May.
And it worked.
THE TASK FORCE SAYS WHAT NCCPR SAYS
Even as still another child abuse tragedy, likely the result of overloading the system with false reports and trivial cases, is making headlines in Michigan, over and over again, a draft of the Task Force report says what NCCPR says: Michigan takes away too many children and does too little to reunite the children it takes. And it does more than speak generally. On point after point – the state's war against grandparents, the need to seek flexibility in federal funding (which Michigan once had but threw away), in supporting Michigan's pioneering Intensive Family Preservation Services program and so on, they say what we said – only their version is duller.
Of course there still are some very serious gaps. There is not a word about bolstering due process protections for families. The foster care-industrial complex is still hard at work trying to sneak its agenda into the fine print (which may explain why a clearly labeled link to the draft report disappeared from the Task Force website after the draft's existence was revealed by The Detroit News. If you want to use the link above, better do it quickly before it's removed as well.) And the funding recommendations are pie-in-the-sky; relying largely on the Oliver Twist approach: Go to the federal government and say "please, sir, we want more." That's because a Task Force with so many providers on it is never going to say the obvious: If Michigan would stop warehousing so many children in institutions, it would have plenty of money to bolster prevention and family preservation.
Nevertheless, we commend the Task Force for joining NCCPR in understanding that wrongful removal drives everything else, and joining in our demand that the system be rebuilt to emphasize keeping families together.
There's just one problem: Ismael Ahmed doesn't believe a word of it.
THE REAL PRIORITIES ARE IN THE BUDGET
That can be seen in DHS's proposed FY 2010 budget.
All of the data below come from
Michigan's Children, Budget Basics for Child Advocates, March 17, 2009. The information applies to the budget as proposed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The proposed budget moves in precisely the opposite direction from that recommended by the commission it would feed the powerful private agencies that institutionalize children - the tapeworm in the child welfare system - at the expense of impoverished families.
These cuts are not required by Michigan's economic crisis. On the contrary, the proposed budget increases funding for taking children from their parents and holding them in foster care even as it cuts funds to avoid needless destruction of families. The cuts in prevention could be reversed – and prevention funding increased – simply by changing priorities and curbing the misuse and overuse of what is both the worst form of care for children and the most expensive: Institutionalization.
Consider what the proposed Granholm-Ahmed budget does to prevention and family preservation programs:
● Families First, Michigan's national model Intensive Family Preservation Services program, which has been cut over and over, including the elimination of all state funding – replaced by TANF surplus funds: Even as demand for this program is sure to increase as the Michigan economy collapses, there will be no additional funding for Families First.
●Family reunification services, to help families take care of children once they finally get them back from foster care: Again, no increase to the miserly $3.98 million allotted to the program now.
● Zero to three secondary prevention: All funding eliminated.
● Teen Parent Counseling: All funding eliminated.
● Family Group Decision-making, an approach similar to a key component of the Family to Family program – a prime target of the foster care-industrial complex: Funding significantly reduced. (Family to Family is an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which helps to fund NCCPR.)
● Community protection and permanency: funding significantly reduced.
● Marriage and fatherhood initiatives: all funding eliminated.
At least as important as many of these relatively small, specific prevention programs is concrete help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, which so often is confused with "neglect." Those programs also take a hit:
●A long-planned meager increase of $2 per person per month in Michigan's dismal cash assistance rates: eliminated.
●Incentive payments for welfare recipients who fulfill all federal work requirements for three months: eliminated.
●Funds to help with the basics of getting a job: transportation, car repair, appropriate clothing for work etc: cut significantly.
●Low income day care, so children are not taken away from parents who must work but can't find anyone to care for the children: Cut by 1,500 cases, and a rate increase for providers is eliminated.
STARVE THE POOR, FEED THE TAPEWORM
And it looks like it's all going to feed the tapeworm.
Because in this proposed budget, the big private agencies that live off a steady supply of foster children do just fine, thank you. No cuts. No level funding. On the contrary, they rake in a total of more than $22 million in additional funds in the form of a $10 per day increase in "administrative" costs, plus a $7 a day increase in their per diems – the amount they are paid for each day they hold a child in their institutions.
In addition, under this budget Michigan's poor people would be required to subsidize the caseworkers who investigate them when their poverty is confused with neglect and then take away their children.
That's because, even as so much else is being cut, the budget proposes to spend $78.4 million to hire 850 additional child welfare staff, including 279 new child protective services workers, 216 child welfare supervisors, 87 foster care workers, 62 permanency planning workers 66 administrative support positions, 49 new administrative positions, 17 private child placing agency monitoring staff, 74 team decision-making facilitators, and a new data collection unit.
A small portion of that hiring makes sense, and some of it is required by a class-action lawsuit settlement between DHS and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" – but not all of it.
The settlement requires that caseloads for investigators and foster care workers be cut – but it does not specify that this has to be done by hiring more workers. It could, in fact, be done by creating a rational mechanism for screening calls to Michigan's child abuse hotline. The need for such a mechanism was a key finding of the Michigan Race Equity Review. That way, workers would spend less time investigating false allegations and trivial cases.
And it could be done by increasing prevention and family preservation efforts so fewer children are taken away. The same money Ismael Ahmed wants to use to hire more investigators and foster care workers could save both children and dollars by being used to hire prevention and family preservation workers instead.
But that is beyond the vision and imagination of DHS and CR.
THE SAME LOUSY SYSTEM, ONLY BIGGER
In fact, the new hiring probably will do little or nothing to actually reduce caseloads – rather it is almost certain to further widen the net of coercive intervention into families, leaving Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.
And that will suit the foster care-industrial complex just fine.
Even where new hiring specifically is required by the consent decree, there is no justification for taking the money for those hires out of poor people's pockets. And CR could have stopped it. They could have demanded that poor people be "held harmless" for meeting the costs of any settlement.
There was a time when CR might have done just that. But that was a long, long time ago.
As for the giant Task Force: Either it got out of Ahmed's control or it was a sham from the beginning, designed to divert attention from his real agenda. NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare, Cycle of Failure, began by describing how the state's children have been betrayed by DHS and the foster care-industrial complex. Given what appears to be Ahmed's real agenda, the Task Force process is likely to be one more betrayal of children, particularly the young people who served on the Task Force itself.