Monday, March 15, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: DHS flunks ANOTHER exam

By now, it's well known that the monitor overseeing the consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" issued a report that found huge problems at DHS – including illegal budget cuts, understating abuse in foster care and the mass expulsion of children from the homes of relatives.

But this isn't the only scathing report to surface about DHS.

Every few years, the federal government reviews the performance of every state through what is called a Child and Family Services Review. States tend to do badly. But, as The Detroit News reports today, the latest review for Michigan shows that, even compared to other states, Michigan's performance was dismal. There are seven key categories in the CFSR – and Michigan flunked every single one of them.

How much does this really mean? The CFSR methodology is dreadful, a fact NCCPR has pointed out repeatedly. So, were this the only indication of failure, it really wouldn't tell us much. But because the CFSR tracks so closely with the far more rigorous review by the monitor, it suggests that, in this case, even if only by chance, the CFSR is on the mark.

Think of it this way: The CFSR is like one of those simple, inexpensive screening tests a doctor can perform for some forms of cancer. They don't really tell you if you're sick, but they may tell you that a more rigorous test, like a biopsy, is needed. The monitor's report is the biopsy. Unfortunately, the monitor's report confirms the CFSR "diagnosis": The Michigan child welfare system is gravely ill – and it is having a malignant effect on some of the children it is supposed to help. It needs radical surgery.


Both documents highlight the same core problem: The devastating cuts in safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families. These cuts never had to happen. They were not caused primarily by the recession, but by the way DHS chose to meet the terms of the consent decree itself, and by DHS Director Ismael Ahmed's pandering to the state's powerful private child welfare agencies.

To cure the malignancy, DHS must reverse course. It must not only restore the cuts in prevention and family preservation, it must expand these programs, while doing its cutting in needless foster care and, especially, needless institutionalization of children. (Yes, DHS has begun to cut such placements, and that's commendable, but it's only a down payment on what it owes the children it has wronged.)

The monitor's report details the enormous harm caused by the cuts to prevention and family preservation – and makes clear that the cuts violate the consent decree, making them illegal. Unfortunately, CR, which is as hostile to real family preservation as DHS, isn't doing anything about it.

Similarly, the CFSR declares that

The State's low performance on the outcomes assessed by the CFSR may be attributed in part to State budget cuts that have had a negative impact on the ability of the State to provide services to children and families who come into contact with the child welfare system, particularly in-home service cases. [Emphasis added].

The CFSR singled out for praise the state's outstanding Intensive Family Preservation Services program, Families First, and its Family Reunification services program. But both programs were cut back to fund a foster care caseworker hiring binge and rate increases for residential treatment providers.

The CFSR goes on to conclude that, when it comes to services to families, Michigan actually has deteriorated since the previous federal evaluation in 2002. Among the findings:

There is a scarcity of key services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment services, which results in waiting lists for these services.

Many of these services are not available at all in some parts of the state.

The CFSR also found:

The State was not consistent in assessing and meeting the needs of children receiving in-home services, foster parents, mothers, and fathers.

The State did not make concerted efforts to involve children, mothers, and fathers in case planning in both the foster care and in-home services cases, although children in the foster care cases were more likely to be involved than children in the in-home services cases.

This new CFSR notes that when Michigan flunked its previous CFSR, one response was to expand an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation known as Family to Family.

But as NCCPR noted in our first report on Michigan child welfare last year, in 2008, DHS reduced the level of its participation in that program in Wayne and Macomb Counties.

And there was one more finding, which says a lot about the priorities of DHS. Once a child was in foster care, Michigan generally performed adequately at meeting the child's physical health needs. That was less likely to happen if DHS was helping a family while the child remained in the home. DHS had problems meeting children's mental health needs no matter where they were, but did worse when the children still were in their own homes.

In other words, parents have to lose their children to foster care before DHS will help those children get the health care they need.

When asked about this by The Detroit News, DHS showed that it still excels in two areas: cynicism and deceit. Among the "improvements" cited by DHS: Spending $4 million on prevention programs. What DHS didn't say, but the monitor's report reveals, is that this $4 million is not new money, it's money being shifted by cutting other prevention programs.


None of this is solely DHS's fault. CR pushed DHS in this dreadful direction when it negotiated a consent decree that does nothing to demand that DHS do more to keep families together. Instead, it allows DHS to lower caseloads through that foster care worker hiring binge – which it is financing through cuts in prevention and family preservation. The cuts also are going to finance rate increases for residential treatment centers.

So far CR hasn't lifted a finger to stop these cuts. It's been up to the monitor to point out that they violate the consent decree, while CR sits on its hands. At the same time, of course, CR demanded that mass expulsion of children from the homes of relatives in order to satisfy CR's bureaucratic obsession with licensing.