Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Traverse City, Michigan: Lots of foster care, and an extra dose of meanness

Most child welfare systems are lousy, but they're not all lousy in exactly the same way.

Statistically, the child welfare system in Michigan is not the worst. But in parts of Michigan there seems to be an extra level of sheer meanness in the way the system approaches families.

The attitude in some counties boils down to: "Not only will we take your children, we'll rub your nose in it. We'll make sure you know at every turn how inferior you are to us, and make your experience as degrading and humiliating as possible."

Perhaps it's because of the enormous power of the state's private agencies. They've effectively run the whole system for so long that I suspect it breeds a special kind of arrogance that trickles down to some county offices of the state's Department of Human Services. (Details on all this are in NCCPR's reports on Michigan child welfare.)

Not everywhere, of course. Just last week I heard about some heroic DHS caseworkers in Detroit who, when finally given just a little more in the way of resources themselves (thanks to the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy), were able to keep families together in the way they'd always wanted. There are a lot of caseworkers like that in Detroit, and all over the country.

I'm sure there are some in Traverse City and surrounding Grand Traverse County, as well. But apparently not very many. Grand Traverse County is an affluent enclave that sees relatively little poverty and has an ugly history of confusing that poverty with neglect.

Grand Traverse County is a place where people don't feel they have to hide their disgust with those less affluent than they.

Poor people often don't have cars and have enormous difficulty getting to the suburbs where many foster children are placed – especially when visits are scheduled during working hours and the birth parents also must keep their jobs to get their children back.

But in 2000, in a series of articles in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a local foster parent made clear she didn't give a damn. She said DHS needs to "not pamper the parents' requests so much" by doing things like moving visits to places that are easier for parents to reach.

The local lawyer guardian ad litem, who "represents" children in these cases (meaning she tells the judge what she thinks is best for the children, regardless of whether it's what the children themselves want) suggested to the Record-Eagle that parents should view having their children taken as almost like a vacation, a chance to,

straighten out their own lives without the pressure of caring for children as well. "Try not to look at it as the state trying to intervene in your family," she said. "The problems seem to arise when parents see it as an invasion."

As for the head of the local DHS office at the time, Bob Porter, his only concern was that Michigan's laws on termination of parental rights, already even more draconian than the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, didn't go far enough.

Why wait 12 months before demanding termination in almost every case? Why not make it six? Porter said. He said he wouldn't want his children waiting longer "while I decided whether I wanted to be a parent or not." (The Grand Traverse mentality is that DHS is always right, poor people simply choose to be poor and "neglect" their children, so if they can't get their children back it must be their own fault.)

Apparently, Porter hadn't noticed that in his region, in just the two years from the passage of those draconian laws to 2000, while adoptions had increased by ten percent, terminations of parental rights had shot up 49 percent. And the number of area children trapped in foster care on any given day had increased by one-third. But in Grand Traverse County, lording it over poor people was far more important than actually helping their children.

And not just at DHS. Those stories in the Record-Eagle were not an expose of these laws and attitudes – they were a celebration.

To this day, Grand Traverse DHS is "in denial" about all this. Confronted by Traverse City's alternative weekly, Northern Express, with the fact that the rate of child removal in Grand Traverse County is the third highest among counties large enough to measure, more than double the state average, the current DHS director for Grand Traverse County, Dawn McLaughlin, simply declared that the numbers couldn't be right – even though the numbers come from DHS itself.

Her predecessor, Mary Marois, had a different theory. She said the numbers might be right, but maybe it's because all children suspected of being abused in several counties are sent to a regional medical center in Traverse City. But this ignores the fact that it's the home county that decides whether those children will be removed, and the removal is counted as an entry from the home county. That probably explains why in metropolitan Detroit, which, I suspect has at least one regional medical center, the rate of removal still is one-third the rate in Grand Traverse County.

The whole Grand Traverse mentality helps explain what is happening right now to one mother and her infant, whose story was told in January by Northern Express. I'll discuss that story on this Blog tomorrow.