Friday, May 22, 2009

An award nomination for Maine, a slap in the face for Michigan

Six years ago, the child welfare system in the state of Maine was in a state of chaos. Things were so bad that the PBS series Frontline actually used the Maine system as a microcosm for everything wrong with child welfare.

Today the system has improved so much that it is a finalist for a prestigious Innovations in American Government award from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The transformation in Maine is among only 16 finalists out of more than 600 entries.

The state has dramatically reduced the number of children taken from their parents and significantly increased the proportion of those taken who are placed with relatives. But perhaps their most remarkable achievement is cutting by two-thirds the number of children trapped in the worst form of care of all, institutionalization. It's all been done without compromising safety, earning the support of the state's independent child welfare ombudsman.

A lot of people deserve credit for the transformation, but none more than the director of Maine's child welfare agency, James Beougher.

Oh, wait. Actually there are some others who deserve to share the credit: The collection of regressive, obstructionist private agencies in Michigan who, year after year, block every attempt at meaningful reform in that state. These enormously powerful agencies constitute the state's foster care-industrial complex, or, to use a term first coined by legendary newspaper columnist Jack Newfield – the "permanent government" of Michigan child welfare. The agencies in the foster care-industrial complex are paid for every day they warehouse children in their institutions. Nothing is more important to these agencies than keeping those per diems rolling in. Oh they won't admit that, not even to themselves. They've got an elaborate set of rationalizations for their hugely expensive largely worthless institutions, and they've suckered a fair number of people, apparently including Michigan Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed, into believing them.

Jim Beougher used to work in Michigan. He'd successfully reduced institutional placements in several counties. But when he tried to do it statewide as director of child and family services for Michigan DHS, he was thwarted by the intractable politics of Michigan child welfare. But while Michigan didn't want change, Maine, and in particular, Maine's governor, John Baldacci, did. So the Baldacci Administration brought Beougher to Maine, where he led that state's reform effort.

Beougher is not alone. In NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare, there is a section called The Michigan Child Welfare Brain Drain, which tells the stories of other Michigan child welfare leaders who brought reform to other places after being thwarted in Michigan.

Not that it's been easy in Maine. There's a foster care-industrial complex in Maine, too. But with the strong backing of the governor, and with the state's major newspapers unwilling to take the claims of the private agencies at face value, the reform effort has survived attempts to beat it back.

So the vulnerable children of Maine owe quite a debt of gratitude to the private child welfare agencies of Michigan. The vulnerable children of Michigan could be forgiven for not feeling quite as grateful.

But the story doesn't end there. Another of the finalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards also is, in effect, a direct slap in the face to the regressive Michigan way of doing business in child welfare. That story Monday.