Sunday, May 24, 2009

Another award finalist, another slap at Michigan

It's not that the judges of the prestigious Innovations in American Government awards at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government were thinking: "Lets really send a message to the regressive child welfare leadership in Michigan that they're getting it all wrong," - it just happened to work out that way. Two of the sixteen finalists for the awards, and two of three in the child welfare category, are a direct repudiation of the Michigan approach, with its heavy reliance on the worst form of care, institutionalization.

As such, the naming of these finalists is a humiliating rebuke to Ismael Ahmed, the current director of Michigan's Department of Human Services and someone who, if his budget is any indication, seems to view his job as giving the institutional care providers – Michigan's foster care-industrial complex – pretty much whatever they want. (The award nominations don't exactly make Ahmed's boss, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, look too good either.)

On Friday, I discussed the nomination of the reformed child welfare system in Maine – which was transformed largely by the director of their child welfare agency James Beougher, who was recruited from Michigan when his efforts to do the same were thwarted.

Another finalist is Wraparound Milwaukee, a program that has cut institutional placements in that community by 90 percent. Wraparound Milwaukee is the living, breathing refutation of every argument made by Michigan's foster care-industrial complex; it is the proof that all the claims that there is no alternative but to institutionalize so many children are nonsense. That's why Wraparound Milwaukee is one of the programs featured in NCCPR's second report on Michigan child welfare, called Tapeworm in the System, which will be released in Lansing this week.

The story of this program was told best by the Westchester Journal News, which has done some of the nation's best reporting on this topic. That's because, for historical reasons, Westchester County, New York, may be the residential treatment capital of America. So the newspaper sent two reporters to Milwaukee. Here's what they found:

[Wraparound] cut the number of Milwaukee children in RTCs by 90 percent, dramatically shortened their stays, reunited hundreds of families, reduced the incidence of crime and saved millions of dollars in treatment costs. It became a national model for treating emotionally disturbed children, offering a more effective and economical means of helping youngsters without the traditional reliance on costly and controversial institutions. …

"Wraparound Milwaukee demonstrates that the seemingly impossible can be made possible: Children's care can be seamlessly integrated. The services given to children not only work, in terms of better clinical results, reduced delinquency, and fewer hospitalizations, but the services are also cost-effective," the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health said in October. "Imagine the nationwide impact on our juvenile justice system if this program were implemented in every community."

"Residential treatment has had the luxury of basically being the sole tool out there for a very high-risk population, and they've convinced people that the only way to be safe is to have them locked up," said Stephen Gilbertson, clinical program coordinator for Wraparound Milwaukee. "We've shown that's simply not true. We've taken extremely high-risk kids and shown they can live successfully in the community."

Institutions have long argued that their role is crucial because most of the children have no stable homes. But Wraparound advocates say institutions have been too quick to write off families; Wraparound seeks out families and finds ways to make them work.

Of course, Milwaukee's institutions didn't simply accept all this. On the contrary, they fought it every step of the way.

"I remember meeting with groups of people and folks saying, 'Let's get some reports out that show they (Wraparound) are going to start hurting kids now,'" said Cathy Connolly, president of St. Charles Youth & Family Services, which operates Milwaukee's largest institution. "Well, nobody could ever bring the reports to the meetings, 'cause there were none that existed that said we were doing anything all that great. We didn't really have any solid anything that demonstrated we were able to fix kids."

Connolly and her colleagues lobbied fiercely for the status quo. She was remarkably candid about the reason:

"There were a couple big fears. … The first was, 'How are we going to financially sustain ourselves?' "

Eventually, however, Connolly's agency embraced the new approach:

"I think, looking back on it now, what we're doing for kids today is far more helpful."

Meanwhile, as noted previously on this Blog, Ismael Ahmed is slashing funding for prevention and family preservation, and proposing big rate increases for institutions.

I wonder if there is an award for resisting innovation in American government?