Monday, March 22, 2010

Michigan DHS goes soft on child abuse (when it’s in foster care)


One of the more alarming sections of the report by the independent monitor of the Michigan child welfare consent decree is the section on abuse in foster care, especially abuse in the institutions so beloved by Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Ismael Ahmed and his "leadership" team.

When it comes to how many foster children are being abused in Michigan and who is abusing them, DHS doesn't know, and doesn't seem to care. DHS uses what can best be described as a Keystone Kops approach to policing maltreatment in substitute care.

The consent decree DHS signed includes a series of commitments to change that. The report found that, time and time again, DHS failed to keep those commitments.

According to the monitor's report:

By the end of Period Two, DHS still did not know the extent of abuse or neglect in care in Michigan and had fallen behind in delivering on its commitments in the Agreement to define and address this critical issue.


There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the DHS computer system doesn't include some categories of abuse in substitute care – so for years, DHS has been blithely underreporting the real figure. In addition, although DHS can determine that a particular child was abused, apparently the database that tells them that is not linked to the database that tells them which of these children are in substitute care. Brilliant.

The problem is even worse when it comes to investigating abuse in institutions. While child protective services (CPS) investigates abuse in foster homes, when the abuse is in institutions it's investigated by the Bureau of Child and Adult Licensing (BCAL). Leaving aside the question of whether licensing inspectors even know how to investigate child abuse, DHS does not actually allow BCAL inspectors to make a determination. Rather, BCAL is supposed to forward its findings to CPS – which is supposed to make the actual decision (apparently based solely on the paperwork). The trouble is, DHS couldn't prove to the monitor that the information from BCAL even was passed on to CPS.

And it gets worse. According to the monitor's report:

A review of a sample of BCAL special investigation reports raised serious concerns about the treatment of youth in some placements with the responses focused almost exclusively on institutional remedies – examples include: the firing of a staff person, the need for additional training, or flaws in personnel screening practices or staff coverage ratios - with little reference to the needs of the child or children involved. [Emphasis added.]


Then there's the vital issue of the misuse and overuse of "restraints" and "seclusion" – nice euphemisms for solitary confinement and God knows what else.

The settlement requires that DHS ensure that the institutions report every use of seclusion and restraint to a "Quality Assurance" unit. But DHS didn't do it, and hasn't even tried to do it. DHS hasn't even started gathering information. According to the monitor's report:

This is particularly concerning because the monitoring team's review of BCAL special investigations identified multiple issues with restraints, many of which identified the need for improved restraint training and adherence to policy.

The consent decree also includes a requirement that DHS consider how often an institution abuses the children confined there when deciding whether to renew the institution's license. Yes, I'm serious. It took a consent decree to force DHS even to consider this.

But DHS broke its word. According to the report:

The monitoring team … read a sample of the available re-licensing reports from Period Two. The monitoring team found no documentation in any of those reports that DHS had, as DHS committed it would in the Agreement, taken into "due consideration" the history (or absence of history) of any substantiations [of maltreatment] or corporal punishment that occurred at any of those facilities or contract agencies. … There appears to be no place on the standard re-licensure reporting form for the necessary and critical consideration of the history of maltreatment and corporal punishment.

DHS also promised to implement a "two-strikes-you're-out" policy against institutions that covered up abuse by failing to report it to DHS. But DHS didn't to that either.


And finally, there is the matter of creating special "Maltreatment in Care Investigation Units," starting in the state's five largest counties. In a press release issued the day before the monitor's report came out, DHS bragged about getting these units off the ground. DHS neglected to mention that they botched the planning and screwed up the implementation of these units. Again, from the report:

When the plan was provided to the monitoring team, it incorporated poor data that severely undercounted allegations of maltreatment in care. In relying on this data, DHS allocated too few staff to these units. The plan lacked information on training; analysis of the challenges inherent in investigations in institutional settings; clarity about reporting lines; and information on tracking, especially with regard to corrective action plans.

(Other than that, however, it was just fine.)

All of this can be found in the monitor's report on pages 61 through 67. Reading through it, it's hard to escape the impression that top management at DHS is more interested in protecting their friends who run private agencies than in protecting children.