Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Another reason for the love fest in federal court

For an overview of our perspective on Michigan child welfare, listen to this segment of  The Craig Fahle Show on WDET public radio.

The Detroit News had a story yesterday which further explains why a lawyer for the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights was cracking jokes with Maura Corrigan in federal court yesterday even as children continue to suffer.

Corrigan turns out to be a big backer of still another of CR founder Marcia Lowry’s bureaucratic obsessions: separating the state child welfare agency from the larger human services agency.

There is not a shred of evidence that this kind of change makes a child welfare system any better – and a pattern is beginning to emerge suggesting it may be easier to create an improved system without such a change.

When you look at the few child welfare systems that are, relatively speaking, national models – with strong, independent evidence that child safety has improved, they all have one thing in common: They focused on reducing the number of children torn from their families.  But many have something else in common as well: They are not stand-alone agencies.  Rather they are part of larger human services agencies.

●A class action lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law transformed the child welfare system in Alabama into, relatively-speaking, a national model.  (Co-counsel for plaintiffs is a member of NCCPR’s volunteer Board of Directors.) The New York Times wrote about it here. In Alabama, the child welfare system is part of the larger human services agency.

●A former Michigan DHS official who got fed up with having all his reform ideas stymied in Michigan, Jim Beougher, went to Maine and led a transformation of child welfare so remarkable that, in 2009, it was a finalist in Harvard’s Innovations in American Government awards.  I’d be glad to send stories about Maine to anyone interested.  Beougher runs the child welfare division within a larger human services agency.

● Still another fed up Michigander / Michiganian (I’m neutral on that one), David Berns, led a similar transformation of child welfare in the county-run system in El Paso County Colorado.  Key to making the transformation work was the fact that child welfare and other human services were in the same agency, according to an evaluation by the Center for Law and Social Policy.

● Similarly, Marc Cherna, who was hired to run the child welfare division of the Allegheny Department of Human Services and now runs the entire agency thinks having everything in one agency was crucial to his success.

● And in Florida, although it sounds like the Department of Children and Families deals with nothing else, Florida DCF actually has pretty much the same functions as Michigan DHS.  Florida’s dramatic improvements were the result of bold new leadership and a waiver from federal funding restrictions (the same waiver Michigan got, but then turned down at the last minute.) The Florida reforms also caught the attention of The New York Times.

● In Illinois, which was transformed thanks largely to a number of class-action lawsuits and a relatively brief outbreak of good leadership, the child welfare agency is a stand-alone agency.

● In New Jersey, making the child welfare agency a separate agency was a way to get CR off everybody’s back.  The separate agency per se changed nothing.  What made the difference was an unusually good settlement, largely because CR was guided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (a former funder of NCCPR), and, especially, strong leadership from the first commissioner of that new agency, Kevin Ryan.  Ryan now is the monitor for the Michigan decree.


The most ludicrous claim is the one from Corrigan that Indiana is doing well by creating a separate child welfare agency.  I am aware of no one anywhere in the country who cites the Indiana system as it exists today as a model of anything good.

On the contrary, Indiana takes away children at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average and nearly triple the rate of Illinois.  In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, even as most states were able to reduce entries into care, Indiana saw an increase.  Perhaps that’s exactly what Corrigan likes about Indiana, which certainly wouldn’t bode well for Michigan.  Or perhaps Corrigan simply assumes the child welfare agency in Indiana must have improved because a conservative governor named a grandstanding judge to run it.

So why does CR keep pushing for a change for which there is no evidence of benefit?  Probably two reasons.  First, anything that separates children from their families, whether individually or in bulk, seems to appeal to Maura Corrigan and to Marcia Lowry.  And CR loves anything that involves more bureaucracy.  Add another form to fill out, move around the boxes on a table of organization, and somehow CR thinks something has been accomplished.  As I’ve said before, the people at CR are like the clerk you least want to see when you finally make it to the front of the line at the DMV.