Thursday, March 19, 2009

UPDATED, MARCH 22: How much damage can “Children’s Rights” do in just one state?

There is a brief update at the end of this post.
A group called Michigan's Children just put out an analysis of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposals for spending on human services. But here's the bottom line: Big cuts in prevention – at least $38 million – to help finance a big increase in spending on foster care and institutionalization.

That includes not only cuts in programs specifically aimed at family support and child abuse prevention, (much of it, as noted in NCCPR's Michigan report last month, actually funded by TANF surplus money that's supposed to help poor people become self-sufficient) but also cuts in concrete help for impoverished families, such as eliminating a planned raise in pathetically-low welfare payments and eliminating a raise in rates for day care providers.

The $38 million figure does not include de facto cuts in a slew of other programs, at least one of them a national model, which are being level funded in the face of increasing need – the same programs cited in NCCPR's Michigan Report in the section called "The coming TANF train wreck."

The whole thing is nuts.

Michigan's settlement with the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights requires lowering caseloads. The Michigan Department of Human Services has responded in the typical bureaucratic way - assuming the only way to do this is to hire more workers (as opposed to, say, increasing prevention and taking fewer children). So now the new workers will be hired by cutting prevention money – and that almost guarantees more cases. So all Michigan gets is the same lousy system only bigger.


Worse, while rates for people who provide day care so single parents can work will be cut, rates for expensive, largely worthless residential treatment centers will be increased.

The two people most responsible for these absurd priorities are Marcia Lowry and Ismael Ahmed.

Marcia runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights – a group that long ago abandoned any reform effort that involved working to keep families together and instead claims it can "fix" foster care. She negotiated a settlement that allows Michigan to bleed prevention to fund more and more foster care. So instead of a repaired system, you just get a bigger one.

Ahmed runs Michigan's Department of Human Services. He replaced Marianne Udow who was the first DHS leader in more than a decade who actually understood child welfare – which made her a threat to the state's "foster care-industrial complex," it's network of powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care. Ahmed is probably a good guy – but he's clueless - a pushover for anything the private agencies ask for. So it's no wonder they're practically swooning over Ahmed – and the settlement.

One of the leaders of the "foster care-industrial complex," Jim Paparella, Executive Director of Child & Family Services, Capital Area, and one of the most regressive voices in Michigan child welfare, (his exercise in "truthiness" on behalf of one of those awful parking place "shelters" was discussed in an earlier post to this Blog) sure sounded like a man in love when he wrote this in an October, 2008 op ed in the Lansing State Journal:

The settlement resulted from many long months of hard work and was accelerated by newly appointed DHS officials who came aboard last fall. Refreshing from the perspective of private nonprofit agencies in Michigan is the crystal clear vision, direction, and open-mindedness demonstrated by the new leadership. Over the past year, a strong sense of mutual respect and trust has been cultivated between the public and private services sectors, providing the sound foundation that will be needed to implement the major reforms called for in the settlement.

What Paparella really is saying is: Marianne Udow wouldn't give us whatever we wanted – Ismael Ahmed will. And sure enough, even as prevention is cut, Ahmed comes through with more money for institutions. At the same time, the proposed budget includes a cut in Family Group Decision Making, a program similar to a key component of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family program – a program Ahmed already has curbed and which many of the private agencies hate. (The Casey Foundation is a longtime funder of NCCPR.)

In addition to the increases in funding for foster care and institutionalization, funding for adoption also is going up. That's not a bad thing in itself – adoption is a vital part of any good child welfare system. And there is nothing wrong with helping adoptive parents with the costs of adoption, even without a means test. But in past years, poor people in Michigan actually have been forced to, in effect, subsidize adoptions by middle-class families, since $41 million in adoption subsidy money came from TANF – money meant to be used to help poor people become self-sufficient. The Michigan's Children analysis doesn't say if this still is going on, but odds are that's unchanged.

So forget the huge report soon to emerge from the giant "Task Force" Ahmed named – the one that will be packed with platitudes about prevention. (I wonder if it will say that "children are our future"?) And don't believe the canned op ed pieces that will be written for task force members to fill in some blanks and pass off as their own in their local newspapers. (According to a power point presentation on the Task Force website a committee is preparing the "template.") The real story is in the budget. And the real story is ugly.

I first took a look at the budget analysis after reading an op ed by Jack Kresnak, a former Detroit Free Press reporter who now runs Michigan's Children. He called for an increase the tax on beer to avoid the budget cuts. At first I thought that was a good idea – after all, I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and proud of it. But looking at where Ismael Ahmed and Marcia Lowry have persuaded the Governor to increase spending makes it clear that any new money supposedly for prevention would only be used to free up more existing funds for more foster care and more money to institutionalize children. There's no point in raising taxes just for the same lousy system only bigger.

By the way, there are people who have complained that posts like these, and NCCPR's Michigan Report are too "inflammatory." (Hard to believe, I know.) I can live with that. There are a lot of good people at DHS and even the private agencies, where they've persuaded themselves that their largely worthless institutions aren't largely worthless. But that doesn't change the fact that, for decades, DHS and the private agencies have been hurting the children they're supposed to help. Isn't it time to light a fire under them?

UPDATE, MARCH 22: The New York Times Florida Newspapers have a story about a guy named Don Winstead, the man picked by that state’s Governor to oversee how Florida will use its federal stimulus money.  According to the story, Winstead has been “praised for helping the state land a federal waiver for foster care that earned the state extra money and more flexibility on where the money was spent.”
            That is, of course, the same waiver that Michigan first accepted, and then turned down at the last minute.  You would think Winstead’s counterpart in Michigan - whoever it was who made that idiotic decision to turn down the waiver - at least would have the decency to own up to it.
            And one would hope the Task Force would demand answers about the waiver and include them in its own report.  But don’t bet on it.  The Task Force, which meets again tomorrow, doesn’t seem interested in lighting a fire under anyone.