Thursday, March 11, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: The DHS horror show


When the first report of the independent monitor overseeing Michigan's child welfare consent decree was released six months ago, I wrote that "No Hollywood studio is ever going to buy the rights" to such a report.

But if such a studio were to try to make a movie based on the findings of the monitor's second report, released Tuesday, I know the genre in which it would fit: horror film.

The expulsion of hundreds of children from the homes of loving relatives in order to satisfy the licensing obsession of the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," described in previous posts, is only the worst of it. There's much more.

Indeed, the cruelty of what the Michigan Department of Human Services is doing to the state's vulnerable children is matched only by the agency's cynicism in violating the consent decree. This is particularly clear when it comes to the already minimal provisions in the decree involving services to keep families together.

The section of the monitor's report on prevention and family preservation describes a litany of deceit and broken promises.

The settlement required DHS to conduct a "needs assessment" and then provide $4 million in additional funds for those needs. The promise was broken.

The settlement required DHS at least to fight for children by seeking the funding it needed from the legislature. But DHS Director Ismael Ahmed and his staff refused even to ask the legislature for the money. The promise was broken.

The report raises the question of whether DHS lied to the Michigan Legislature. DHS claimed it did not need certain funds to comply with the consent decree, when there was overwhelming evidence that it did.

These were not just promises like the kind one makes in a political campaign. These are legally-binding commitments. The report makes clear that DHS has violated the consent decree. That means DHS has broken the law.

Unfortunately, since these broken promises involve prevention and family preservation, the group that brought the lawsuit, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," doesn't seem to care. In Connecticut, when a prevention program that includes middle-class families was threatened, CR rushed into court to try to save it – and told us so over and over again in press release after press release. But in Michigan, where the cuts affect only the usual child welfare agency clientele – overwhelmingly poor people - CR has sat on its hands. Now, at last, some lawyers from the group are going to sit down and talk things over with DHS for 30 days.

Big deal.


Here's how the monitor's report explains what happened. (Wherever a section is in bold, the emphasis has been added by NCCPR.) According to the report:

The Agreement includes a set of necessary commitments to improve the Michigan child welfare system for children and families, many requiring additional investment.

But DHS decided it would rather spend additional funds on hiring more foster care workers and lavishing rate increases on the state's powerful private providers of institutional "care." So, even with children's futures, and possibly their lives, at stake, DHS played cynical shell games with state money.

The monitor's report notes that when the Governor ordered DHS to slash its budget, DHS chose to cut prevention and family preservation. According to the monitor:

Some of these eliminated services are identical to those that both DHS and Michigan State University have identified, as part of needs assessments in the Agreement … as critical – but scarce – for children and families involved with Michigan's child welfare system.

The State Budget Office and DHS did not ask the Legislature for funds to prevent these cuts in services to children and families involved with the child welfare system. These cuts are not consistent with DHS' pledge to build "additional services and placements" in the Agreement

Moreover, DHS committed in the Agreement that it would, at a minimum, request of the Michigan Legislature "state funds and any federal/special fund authorization sufficient to effect the provisions and outcome measures set forth in this Agreement in connection with any budget, funding, or allocation request to the executive or legislative branches of State government." However, during Period Two, DHS and the State Budget Office did not advance to the Michigan Legislature a request for funds or spending authorization to fully replace the significant cuts in services to children and families that the administration implemented in FY2009 or to fully fund the commitments in the Agreement.

In June 2009, the State Budget Director submitted to the Michigan Legislature a revised FY2010 funding recommendation for DHS that eliminated slightly more than $20 million and 197 child welfare staff positions originally requested to implement the Agreement. DHS indicated these positions were no longer necessary to satisfy its commitments in the Agreement due to reductions in the overall caseload managed by DHS. However … DHS did not meet several of its caseload commitments in Period Two, standards which are only the starting point in a multi-year process of reducing caseloads from excessive to appropriate levels.

As for the "needs assessment," it led the monitor to call for spending $1.5 million more on housing for children aging out of foster care, $1.5 million to support youth "stepping down" from residential care, and $1 million in new family preservation services. And how did DHS "comply" with its legal duty? According to the monitor:

DHS advised the monitoring team that it will divert $4 million in existing family preservation funds, beginning in Period Three, to fund this expansion. Although DHS is not responsible for implementing this expansion of services until Period Three, the monitoring team observes that a diversion of pre-existing resources to fund services is not consistent with the Agreement or the underlying Needs Assessment, and will closely assess funding sources for additional services in future periods.

I'll bet Ahmed and his pals in the private agencies were really proud of that one.