Sunday, December 7, 2008

Did some Michigan private agencies urge the state to violate federal law?

    The previous item on this Blog, originally posted in April, 2006, dealt with a campaign by some of Michigan's private child welfare agencies to undermine not only efforts to keep children in their own homes, but even efforts to keep them in their own communities. The agencies traipsed up to Lansing to tell a legislative committee that the children would be better off if they were sent far from everyone they knew and loved because then they'd be in "better neighborhoods" with "better schools."

    They made these claims in the course of opposing the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family initiative. (The Casey Foundation also helps to fund NCCPR, though they are not funding our current efforts in Michigan.)

    The previous post outlined the flaws in this logic, starting with the fact that this is exactly how American child welfare has operated for more than 150 years – and things haven't turned out too well.

    But, it turns out there is another problem with what the private agencies wanted: It might be illegal.

    This came to my attention when I read the results of a "casereading" conducted in connection with the lawsuit that the group which so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" brought against the Michigan child welfare system. The authors of the casereading point out that "Federal law requires that children be placed in close proximity to their parents (42 U.S.C. 675[5][A]) to facilitate visitation and reunification."

    In other words, the feds know that if a child must be taken from her or his home, it is far better for that child at least to be able to see those parents, or to be able to see extended family, or be able to live near their friends and classmates and, yes, not have to change schools with all the disruption that causes. Common sense and 150 years of history say that as well. In fact, it's so obvious that, as the casereading points out, even the national trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League Of America, feels compelled to say that "placement with foster families who live outside of the child's community should be avoided."

So who wouldn't say that?

    Well, it turns out the legislative testimony against keeping children in their own communities was coordinated by an outfit called the Association of Accredited Child and Family Agencies, based in Birmingham, Mi. The Association has no website I could find, but its president at the time of the hearing was John Schmidt. At the time Schmidt also was president of the Methodist Children's Home – a residential treatment center; in other words, an orphanage. (Schmidt still might run the place, their website doesn't say who's in charge). Institutionalization in a residential treatment center is both among the most expensive forms of "care" and among the worst for children. For details, see NCCPR's review of the literature and summary of better alternatives. But the people who run RTCs tend to be very good at rationalization; they convince themselves all that research just can't be right. So of course they're going to be threatened by alternatives that are both better for children and cost less. And clearly, if you run an institution that is "situated on 70 acres of beautifully wooded land and rolling open spaces" it's not right near where the families of most of the children institutionalized there actually live.

    The Methodist Home website and brochure say the agency also offers foster care and adoption services. They say nothing about services to keep families together.

    I'm not suggesting that anyone who testified at that hearing knew they were recommending a course of action that might be illegal. I didn't know myself until recently. But Michigan legislators need to know. They also need to check on the likely penalty for enacting a policy that deliberately avoids placing children close to their families. My guess is it's the penalty state lawmakers fear most: loss of federal money.

    So if the fact that the private agency recommendations would devastate children isn't enough reason for lawmakers to ignore them, the fact that it might further harm Michigan's budget certainly should be.

    There are other notable findings in the casereading but one stands out:

A key factor in cushioning the blow of removal from everyone loving and familiar is keeping children in stable placements; that is, stopping them from bouncing from foster home to foster home. According to the case reading, a child is far more likely to have only one foster care placement if it's an unlicensed placement with a relative – instead of a licensed placement with a stranger. Yet, as is documented elsewhere on this Blog, the very group that brought the lawsuit and sought the casereading, the one that pompously pronounces itself the arbiter of "Children's Rights," included in its settlement a provision likely to severely undermine kinship care in Michigan.

    Perhaps the people at CR simply didn't notice the findings in their own casereading. If they'd care to go back and look, they're on page 24.