Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Michigan “Needs Assessment”: A rebuke to DHS and CR

As the previous post to this Blog explains, a requirement of the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) is a "Needs Assessment." As the name suggests this means lots of people spending lots of time creating one more document telling us what we already know: Michigan should be doing far more to keep families together.

The settlement calls for spending $4 million on needs found by the Needs Assessment. But in a true masterstroke of legal strategy, CR managed to forget to include anything in its settlement that would stop DHS from cutting ten times more than they now are required to add. Brilliant. So What DHS giveth with one hand, DHS taketh ten-fold with the other.

As for what the document actually tells us:

The Needs Assessment is a 221-page rebuke of the shortsighted approach of both DHS and CR.

Everything the assessment says Michigan's vulnerable children need more of, DHS is providing less of. The list of what Michigan's vulnerable children need and the list of children's services budget cuts are nearly identical.

And that is not because of the state budget crisis. The biggest fraud in Michigan right now is the notion that the cuts in safe proven programs to keep families together are needed to balance the budget. On the contrary, the money saved from these cuts is going into more money for institutionalization and a wasteful hiring binge.

For that, the blame rests both with Ismael Ahmed's apparent obsession with giving private agencies that warehouse children in "residential treatment" whatever they want (that's why he's so beloved by these agencies) and with CR, which allowed that giant loophole in the settlement mentioned above.

Though the spirit of the settlement and its legally binding guiding principles (not to mention common sense) make clear that DHS was not supposed to fund the settlement by cutting other help to vulnerable children, the settlement has no explicit provision saying this. So DHS has plowed through that loophole. DHS is using slash-and-burn budget cuts for prevention and family preservation to finance rate increases for residential treatment and a foster care worker hiring binge.

And the hiring binge is not actually required by the settlement. The settlement requires a reduction in caseloads – it doesn't say this has to be done by hiring child abuse investigators and foster care workers. Caseloads would be far more likely to go down if DHS put more money into the very programs it now is cutting. As it stands now, all those new workers are likely to chase down all the new cases of children needlessly removed from their homes because of the budget cuts, leaving Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.

And I'm not the only one saying this. Look at what the Needs Assessment itself says about how to reduce caseloads (Page 23):

The settlement agreement assumes that Michigan's system reform efforts … will decrease the number of children entering the foster care system. The reduced entries will result from improvements in intake services, prevention services and in-home preservation services. These efforts will also decrease the caseload ratio for public and private agency workers, permitting MDHS to reduce caseloads to the specified levels." [Emphasis added].

The most important part of the Needs Assessment

What may be most important about the needs assessment is what's *not* in its recommendations:

There is no call for more "residential treatment" or other institutional care of children.

There is no call for big rate increases for providers of institutional care.

On the contrary, the Needs Assessment specifically cites the harm of institutionalization (Page 69) and examples of better alternatives (Pages 114, 115) – in other words, exactly what NCCPR said in our second report on Michigan child welfare.

There is no call for a giant hiring binge of child abuse investigators and foster care workers.

So why is DHS spending more money on all of these things while cutting the very programs the Needs Assessment says are really needed?

Are caseloads really excessive?

A key premise of the hiring binge is that it's needed to lower excessive caseloads. But the chart on Page 56 shows that caseloads actually are surprisingly reasonable. These numbers would be suspect if they came from management; but they're estimates from a survey of caseworkers themselves. So that raises further questions about cutting prevention to hire more investigators and foster care workers.

Other Key Findings

A repeated theme is the urgent need for concrete services, particularly transportation and housing assistance, yet these services are among those least available. (Pages 14, 15, 21, 78, 84, 111, chart p. 113). The Assessment states flat out that time in placement often is extended needlessly for lack of this kind of help. (Page 14.)

The unappreciated shining star of Michigan child welfare, the Families First Intensive Family Preservation Services program, is praised repeatedly in almost every section of the needs assessment – seen as enormously beneficial not only for preventing separation of families in the first place but also for making reunification work and for preserving adoptive families. (Pages 10, 44, 82, other references.) Yet this program is being cut yet again by Ismael Ahmed.

On Page 41, the Needs Assessment lists seven vital programs for keeping families together. Most, if not all, have been cut repeatedly in the past and are or will be cut again in the two rounds of slash-and-burn budget cuts inflicted by Ahmed and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The Assessment devotes two-thirds of a page to listing all the things wrong with the settlement's former demand that all grandparents and other relatives providing kinship care be formally licensed (Page 86). And then, on Page 90, it says that unlicensed homes are absolutely essential in order to have enough places for children. Fortunately, partly as a result of pressure from NCCPR, CR and DHS backed off from their war against grandparents and changed that part of the settlement. But NCCPR and many others saw these problems right from the start – why didn't CR and DHS?

Page 75: Most families can't get the services they need.

Page 41: Workers admit to resorting to foster care in cases where children could remain home if the right kinds of help were available.

Page 116: There is a significant need for inpatient drug treatment programs in which parents can live with their children.

Page 62: The Needs Assessment notes what NCCPR reported in March: There are enormous, and disturbing, variations in rates of child removal in different Michigan counties.

Page 54: In the one focus group for birth parents, in Ingham County, which has one of the highest rates of removal in the state, every birth parent, no matter what the actual circumstances of her or his case, said he or she was asked to agree to termination of parental rights; an outrageous indication that the "Binsfeld mentality" – a legacy of a former lieutenant governor who trampled over the state's impoverished families in the name of adoption-at-all-costs (discussed in detail in NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare) - still is alive and well in Michigan.

None of the birth parents said they were involved in developing and implementing the "case plan" explaining what hoops they would have to jump through to get their children back.

Page 55: All of the birth parents said their case records contained inaccuracies.