Friday, February 20, 2009

Statistics abuse at Michigan DHS

    Were there a hotline to which one could report statistics abuse, some people at the Michigan Department of Human Services would have their rights to their pocket calculators terminated.

    On Wednesday, NCCPR released the first of our reports on Michigan child welfare. The response from DHS was what one usually gets from a closed child welfare bureaucracy: they hid behind children. The agency that took Timothy Boss, Joshua Causey, Johnny Dragomir, Rickly Holland, Isaac Lethbridge, and Allison Newman from their parents and sent them into the duly-licensed foster homes adoptive homes and/or group homes of strangers – where all of them died - declared that "If we err, it will be on the side of protecting children."

    They claimed the report was inaccurate, but offered only one specific example – and they were wrong.

    The report states that Michigan institutionalizes children at a rate above the national average. DHS denies this.

    It's times like these when it's good to live in the Age of the Internet. Instead of going back and forth saying "do not!" "do so!" it's possible for anyone to see the data for themselves, quickly and easily. Here's how:

STEP 1: Follow this link to a database maintained by the Child Welfare League of America, using data every state reports to the federal government:

    The link will take you to tools to create a table showing the number of children in foster care in every state by placement setting, as well as the national total in 2006, the most recent year for which these data are available.

    STEP 2: Follow the instructions for creating the table.

    STEP 3: The table lists children in a variety of placement settings including one setting specifically for institutions. Divide the Michigan figure in this category by the Michigan total and you'll get 14.4 percent. Do exactly the same thing for the national total and you get 10.2 percent.

    If, in fact, Michigan has some other calculation which offers a lower figure – if they're maintaining the equivalent of "two sets of books" – then the question becomes which one to believe. The figures I just cited are reported to the federal government's AFCARS database. If a state sends AFCARS inaccurate data, it can, theoretically, lose federal aid, (though the feds have looked the other way at some flagrant bending of the rules by the state of Kansas and, as noted below, Michigan may have fudged some figures too.) In contrast, when DHS produces its own data for the legislature or the public, it can define things any way it wants. So when there is a conflict, it makes sense to use what Michigan sends to the feds. And when we compared Michigan to Illinois and to the national average, we used this same data source, increasing the likelihood of an "apples to apples" comparison.

    It also is striking how quickly DHS claimed to be able to produce its own data on this – since up to now they haven't been able to produce anything quickly. For example, on October 30, 2008, I asked DHS for county-by-county data on entries into care. This is the kind of basic information that several states and localities make available instantly online. Others have been able to produce these data within a couple of weeks.

    But not Michigan. After months of repeated requests, I finally got data for calendar year 2008 in January 2009 – but the last two months were grossly incomplete. Such "data lag" is not uncommon. But most states will acknowledge this upfront. There was not a word about it in the table DHS sent.

    In another request, I asked the person to whom I was directed at DHS if the agency could tell me something as basic as the total amount of money the agency spends on all forms of substitute care. In a response on January 15, this person said this information was "not readily available" to DHS and "I have requested that our Budget Office provide this information." So far, I haven't received it. The endnotes to the report describe the elaborate process NCCPR had to use to try to estimate this figure. (I am not naming anyone I dealt with at DHS because I still think it's possible that they sincerely tried to provide the information and the agency was simply incapable of producing it.)

    That was my assumption in the report itself, and I cite examples throughout. In fact, I've found only one other state, Arizona, that performs as badly. But in light of how quickly DHS rushed to produce figures on institutionalization – figures that appear to contradict what DHS reported to the federal government - I have to wonder. In that regard, one of the experts hired by the group that calls itself "Children's Rights" for its lawsuit against DHS makes an interesting allegation. As I noted in the report itself, according to the expert, John Goad, DHS data on abuse in foster care are misleading and report figures so low as to be laughable. Yet DHS reports data to the federal government that it knows or should know are inaccurate.

    Does that apply to DHS statistics on institutionalization as well?