Monday, July 26, 2010

Foster care tragedy in Michigan. Again.

First there was Ricky Holland, taken by the Michigan Department of Human Services from an overwhelmed, impoverished mother, only to die in the foster home DHS workers thought was perfect for him.

Then there was Johnny Dragomir, taken from his mother when she asked DHS for help after losing her job as a factory worker in Dearborn. As Detroit television station WXYZ reported, DHS placed him in a group home where he starved to death.

And now there is Emily Meno.

DHS never claimed Emily's mother beat her, or tortured her or sexually abused her. Her only "crime" was to be overwhelmed and maybe suffering from a mild mental impairment. Thousands of mothers just like her have raised happy, healthy children when agencies provide those mothers with the basic help they need.

There was a time when Michigan probably would have done that. More than 20 years ago, Michigan was a national leader in using safe, proven alternatives to foster care. But ever since the mid-1990s, Michigan has embraced a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. Occasional efforts to change that have been thwarted, time and time again, by the state's enormously-powerful private agencies, paid for every day they hold children in foster care.

So budgets for basic help that almost certainly could have kept Emily safely with her mother have been slashed. And no, the cuts are not required because of Michigan's budget crisis. Even as these programs were cut, DHS lavished rate increases on providers of what is both the worst form of care for children and the most expensive, institutionalization in so-called "residential treatment centers" and other latter-day orphanages.

Other funds have been diverted to a foster care worker and child abuse investigator hiring binge in order to meet the terms of a consent decree between DHS and the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR).

The consent decree requires DHS to cut caseloads. But that can be done by putting more money into alternatives to taking children in the first place, instead of wasting the money hiring more workers to take away even more children, which will leave Michigan with the same lousy system only bigger.

Indeed, the latest report from the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree shows that the cuts in prevention and family preservation violate the decree. Yet while CR has been more than willing to go back to court to enforce its decrees in other states, and especially enthused about rushing into court to block Georgia and Tennessee from doing more to keep families together, CR apparently hasn't lifted a finger to stop the family preservation cuts in Michigan.

When birth parents really can't care for their children, the next best placement almost always is with a relative. Study after study has found that "kinship" foster care is more stable, better for children's well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called "stranger care."

Here, too, Michigan used to be a leader. As long as the home of a grandparent or other relative met basic health and safety standards, Michigan would place the child there – without forcing the grandparent to comply with ten single-spaced pages of hypertechnical requirements needed to become formally "licensed." Many of these requirements involve middle-class creature comforts, so it's relatively easy for middle-class strangers to meet them, but hard for impoverished relatives.

But licensing is an obsession with CR, a group that believes there is no problem that another piece of red tape or another layer of bureaucracy can't solve. So the consent decree put an end to Michigan's sensible approach to kinship care. As a result, hundreds of Michigan children have been expelled from the homes of loving relatives, and it is harder to relatives to gain custody of children taken from their parents in the first place.

That may explain why Emily Meno wound up in exactly the kind of foster home CR likes best: The home of a duly-licensed stranger, overseen by a respected private agency. Ricky Holland's foster and adoptive home, and Johnny Dragomir's group home also were licensed.

A jury ultimately will decide the guilt or innocence of the licensed stranger who cared for Emily Meno. But this much we already know: Emily Meno is one more child "protected to death" and "licensed to death" by the Michigan Department of Human Services and a consent decree it never should have signed.

If Emily Meno's death is to have any meaning, DHS should have the common decency to restore funding for prevention and family preservation, and go back into court to demand changes to those parts of the decree that launched the war against Michigan's grandparents.