Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still another Michigan foster care failure


It would be hard to find a case that better sums up the dismal state of child welfare in Michigan – and much of the rest of the country – than the story of a little boy named Johnny; a story beautifully told last month by Detroit television station WXYZ, Channel 7.

Johnny was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He could not walk, talk or feed himself. No one ever accused Johnny's mother, Elena Andron, of abusing Johnny. She did not beat him, she did not torture him, she did not abuse him sexually. On the contrary, Elena devoted herself to caring for her severely-disabled son. Elena persevered – until she lost her job.

Then she made a terrible mistake, one that would prove fatal for Johnny: She asked the Michigan Department of Human Services for help.

DHS could have offered her basic financial assistance while Elena looked for a new job. They did not. DHS could have sent in home health aides to take care of Johnny. They didn't do that either. Instead, DHS offered Elena only one option: put Johnny in foster care until she could get back on her feet financially. (If you're wondering how this jibes with the common claim by child welfare agencies that they never confuse poverty with "neglect" - it doesn't.)

DHS, which would provide no financial help so Elena could care for Johnny herself, was only too glad to fork over $12,000 per month – yes, per month – to a group home for Johnny's care.

They also threw in a food allowance.

But somehow, it seems, not much of the food made it to Johnny.

He starved to death – literally suffering in silence, unable to feed himself or tell anyone what was going on. Johnny weighed 120 pounds when first left to the tender mercies of DHS and the group home. He weighed only 48 pounds when he died.


Of course, Elena could see what was happening when she visited. She complained to DHS.

The response from DHS and the group home: They went to court to bar Elena from even visiting her son. The court promptly rubber-stamped the request.

Elena Andron never saw her son alive again.

Sadly, there is nothing surprising about any of this. As we explained in our reports on Michigan child welfare, DHS doesn't really run child welfare in Michigan, the state's powerful network of private agencies effectively is in charge.

So it's no wonder a private group home could collect $12,000 per month for Johnny's "care," while Elena could get nothing.

And thanks to, among others, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights, (CR) the chances of another such tragedy have increased. CR's settlement in Michigan encouraged DHS to divert already meager funds to help children like Johnny stay in their own homes into hiring more child abuse investigators and foster care workers.

And another clause of the settlement only adds more poignancy to one of the comments Elena Andron made to WXYZ:

"I thought [the people at the group home] were good people. They were licensed."

Ah, yes, licensure – CR's Holy Grail. Thanks to CR's fanaticism about licensing, hundreds of Michigan children have been forced out of the homes of their own grandparents and other relatives. Too bad CR apparently is far more interested in expelling children from those homes than in demanding alternatives to forcing children into group homes when their parents are poor. And too bad CR's definition of "children's rights" apparently didn't include Johnny's right to live safely in his own home.

DHS also is using savings from cutting family preservation to provide big rate increases to group homes and institutions. (Perhaps they feel $12,000 a month just isn't enough.)


How this tragedy first gained prominent public notice is a story of a different kind of failure.

Having worked both in print and broadcast journalism, I've seen the way practitioners of the former look down on practitioners of the latter, dismissing television as slick and superficial, lacking the depth that, supposedly, only a newspaper can provide.

But even though Detroit is one of America's few remaining two-newspaper towns, both Detroit dailies dismissed Johnny's story with brief news items when his mother filed a civil lawsuit.

We saw those stories and mentioned Johnny's case in our first report on Michigan child welfare.

That's where a producer for the investigative unit of WXYZ-TV first saw it.

The television station then took the story and ran with it, spending months investigating the case, and devoting nearly seven minutes of one of its local news programs to telling Johnny's story.

Yes, newspapers have endured staff cuts that boggle the mind. But broadcast news organizations always have been smaller than their print counterparts. Yet somehow, WXYZ found the time and the resources.

Johnny is dead. But thanks to WXYZ-TV, at least his story no longer is buried.