Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Court Monitor: Michigan budget cuts may be illegal


No Hollywood studio is ever going to buy the rights to the report of an independent court monitor overseeing a child welfare system lawsuit settlement. And if you want to find the real news, you have to go past the executive summary.

Because the bombshell in the first report of the monitor overseeing the court decree governing child welfare in Michigan is buried in some genteel language at the top of page 34: Remember those slash and burn budget cuts in prevention and family preservation imposed by the head of the state's Department of Human Services, Ismael Ahmed, - even as he lavished rate increases on agencies that institutionalize children? According to the independent monitor, the cuts may well be illegal. They may violate the consent decree. As is discussed below, these cuts also are setting up some newly-reunified families to fail.

That leads to one crucial question: Why couldn't the group that brought the lawsuit, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights (CR) – figure that out? And why aren't they doing something about it – the way plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit in Illinois did in a similar situation earlier this year?

NCCPR first raised these questions when the budget cuts first were revealed months ago. We've come back to the theme repeatedly since then, as a search of this blog for posts mentioning Michigan will make clear. But CR remained silent. They didn't go to court, they didn't even protest. After we pointed out their silence, months ago, they hinted at action in a "tweet" on Twitter, but they didn't deliver. Now, months later, they offer some tepid comments in a press release.

Why? You'd have to ask them. But if you wanted to craft a lawsuit, a settlement, and a post-settlement enforcement strategy designed to thwart efforts to keep families together and promote the taking of children from impoverished families for adoptive placement with middle-class strangers, it would be hard to top the approach that CR has taken.

So CR sits idly by while prevention and family preservation are eviscerated in order to fund a hiring binge of child abuse investigators and foster care workers – and to promote the only form of permanence CR really seems to support: Adoption.

To the extent that this has failed, and to the extent that there has been any real progress in Michigan, (and the report shows there has been a little progress) it is because outside advocates, like NCCPR, have raised hell about CR's approach and problems in the settlement – and, it turns out, because of what amounts to a rebellion among frontline caseworkers. (More on that tomorrow).

CR waited for the monitor to point out what any lawyers who really cared about the best interests of children would have been shouting about from the start: "Early analysis suggests that … service cuts are not consistent with the Settlement Agreement commitments to increase investments in services" [p. 34]. The settlement agreement is legally binding on the state.

The monitor's report also notes that "some of these eliminated services are identical to those identified by DHS in its permanency backlog gap analysis and by Michigan State University in the Needs Assessment as being already scarce for children and families involved with the child welfare system" [p. 33]. Those two documents also are legally required by the settlement.

Didn't CR notice this? Or did they simply not care because they were getting more money for foster care and child abuse investigations, at the expense of prevention and family preservation?

In Illinois, when similar slash-and-burn budget cuts threatened a longstanding consent decree, the plaintiffs in that suit – the Illinois Branch of the ACLU – didn't sit around waiting for a monitor's report. They went straight to court – and got the cuts stopped. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that the Illinois settlement emphasizes working to keep families together – turning that state into, relatively speaking, a model of child welfare success.

In contrast, I haven't even seen CR speak out against the Michigan cuts, until its tepid press release today, much less use its enormous legal clout to fight them.

Setting up families to fail

The budget cuts also threaten one of the few substantive successes in Michigan reported by the monitor: The state is ahead of schedule in reunifying children in a "backlog cohort" – child welfare-speak for a great big group of children who have been trapped in foster care more than a year even though the goal is reunification. (Not surprisingly, most of this progress was made in cases where DHS directly supervises the case. The state's powerful private agencies, which are paid for every day they hold a child in foster care, are behind schedule in reunifications).

But successful reunification depends on ongoing help to the family after it's back together. Ismael Ahmed's budget cuts threaten those very services, increasing the likelihood that the children will come back into foster care.

Of course, if that happens, Ahmed's buddies at the private agencies can then scapegoat the reunification instead of the failure to support that reunification. They'll say "See? We shouldn't be reunifying these families? Let's just go back to rushing to terminate parental rights and pushing adoption-at-all-costs."

A win-win for Ahmed and his friends, a lose-lose for children.

Tomorrow: The frontline rebellion that helped save kinship care in Michigan