Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Latest foster care monitor’s report: Up to 2,400 child "casualties" in Michigan’s war against grandparents


Not that I'd ever say "I told you so," but that legal two-by-four did indeed get the Gov.-elect's attention, and there won't be a request for a federal takeover after all.

The Detroit News reports that the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights will seek “a federal takeover” of Michigan’s child welfare system, and ask the court to name a “receiver” to run it.

This is the kind of remedy you use for the worst of the worst – like Washington D.C. a decade ago.  Leaving aside the fact that CR actually helped create this mess, there certainly are grounds for a receivership. But this probably is just a political tactic – a legal two-by-four with which to hit the new governor over the head to get his attention.

Throughout this post, the page number in the monitor’s report that discusses the finding is noted in brackets.  The full report is available here.

Anywhere from 1,500 to 2,400 Michigan foster children have been expelled from the homes of loving grandparents and other relatives since the Michigan Department of Human Services signed a disastrous consent decree with the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR).  That’s one of the revelations in the latest report of the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree [p. 95].

The report is the most damning, most scathing, I have ever read about any jurisdiction.  It shows that an ill-conceived consent decree, doomed to failure from day one, has failed miserably.

The report portrays a system worse than Connecticut, worse than Georgia, worse than Washington State, worse than New Jersey when it was at its worst, to name just four systems operating under consent decrees.  It’s even worse than Washington D.C. in recent years. (I haven’t read the reports from back when D.C. got so bad it was actually placed in federal receivership, but I’ll bet they’re a lot like this one).


In a remarkable statement for this kind of report, the monitor gives what amounts to the ultimate vote of no-confidence in the people running DHS.  He appears to be advising Michigan’s governor-elect, Rick Snyder, to do a total housecleaning, seeming to suggest he replace not only the ineffectual (at best) DHS Director, Ismael Ahmed, but his entire child welfare leadership team.

In carefully chosen words, at the bottom of Page 33, the report states that:

With the election of a new Governor, Michigan has an opportunity to build a high-level leadership team that can coordinate the work of this reform effectively and improve the partnerships within DHS and between DHS and the many private agencies that serve children and families in Michigan.’

One can only imagine how the “Wikileaks version” would read.

The monitoring report doesn’t name names, but clearly the buck stops with Ahmed and with Kathryne O’Grady who heads DHS’ Children’s Services Administration, (which was created as a requirement of the consent decree because CR loves nothing more than creating more boxes on tables of organization, and doesn’t understand that leadership is more important than flow charts).  And it doesn’t sound like the monitor wants the firings to stop there.

DHS needs a leadership team that will run the agency for the benefit of the children, instead of for the state’s powerful, entrenched private agencies that are paid for every day they hold children in foster care.


But even such firings won’t be enough.  It is urgent that Gov.-elect Snyder renegotiate the consent decree itself, to bring it into line with truly progressive decrees like the ones in Illinois and Alabama, which, as The New York Times reported in this story, now is a national model.  (The Alabama decree, crafted by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law after they concluded CR Director Marcia Lowry’s approach doesn’t work very well, focuses on rebuilding the system to emphasize safe, proven approaches to keeping children in their own homes. Bazelon’s Legal Director is a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors.)

Among the other findings:

● DHS is an agency so incompetent that, statistically speaking, it “misplaced” a thousand foster children.  The agency suddenly and mysteriously reported that there actually are a thousand more children in Michigan foster care than it had reported previously for the same time periods [p.5].

● The figure would be even higher but for the fact that DHS is keeping the number artificially low through what amounts to mass youth abandonment.  The agency is expelling young people at age 18 even when they have no permanent homes – breaking a promise “to keep those cases open longer to provide supportive services” [p. 6].  (This is why NCCPR always warns reporters to focus on entries into care, the number of children taken away over the course of a year, instead of just on the number of children in care on any given day, a figure that can be manipulated in exactly the way DHS has done).

● The statistically “misplaced” foster children were discovered after the monitoring team “noticed a problem using basic addition and subtraction” [p.52], skills one would have hoped  DHS itself had mastered and could have applied before submitting bad data to the monitor. According to the report, “it is deeply troubling that DHS leadership submitted incomplete information to the court” [p.51]. Or, to put it less diplomatically, DHS is an agency so incompetent it needs to be reminded that two plus two equals four.  (And that is giving the agency the benefit of the doubt; it assumes the undercounting of 1,000 foster children was merely incompetent and not deliberate.)

● Even where there may have been actual improvement, as in the percentage of children trapped in institutions, it’s impossible to be sure because DHS’ innumeracy makes it impossible to establish a “baseline” [p.3].

● DHS failed to provide even the minimum increase in services for prevention and family preservation required under the decree.  That means overall, those services have been cut, since, as we explain in our reports on Michigan child welfare, DHS slashed these programs in part to fund rate increases for residential treatment centers and in part to fund a foster care worker/child abuse investigator hiring binge – which it saw as necessary to meet the consent decree requirements to lower caseloads.  (In fact, this also could have been done, in part, by taking fewer children needlessly) [pp. 38, 39].

● This means DHS continues to be in violation of the decree, as noted in the previous report from the monitor.  That report found that, instead of increasing this funding, DHS simply was diverting the money from other prevention and family preservation programs.

● DHS failed even to ask the legislature for enough money to implement all the requirements in the consent decree – even though DHS is legally required to do so by the decree itself.  And DHS went further, actually urging the legislature to cut funds for family preservation [p. 38].

● DHS has become obsessed with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Granted, CR started it – there’s nothing they love more – but, as the report noted, “in every monitoring period to date, DHS has reorganized its child welfare leadership structure” [p. 32], so it’s no wonder communication within DHS and between DHS and private agencies has deteriorated.

According to the report, “There is a palpable sense of disappointment with the reform effort across the system, which has only grown over time” [p.6].  But there shouldn’t be.  There’s no reason to be disappointed in an agreement that was doomed to fail from day one.  Saddened, and very, very angry, yes – but not “disappointed.”


Partly that’s because of DHS’ dreadful senior management team.  But DHS alone isn’t at fault.  CR must share the blame for forcing down the agency’s throat a hyperbureaucratic consent decree that diverted resources from where they were needed most, keeping children out of the system in the first place, and into practices that actually do harm, like the war against grandparents.

Study after study has found that placing children with relatives, called kinship care, is more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”

In a system that, 20 years ago, actually was a child welfare leader, kinship care was one of the very few remaining Michigan success stories, with the state placing a higher proportion of children with relatives than the national average.

But thanks to CR’s bureaucratic obsessions, that achievement is eroding.  The percentage of Michigan foster children placed with relatives is down from 35 percent in October 2006 (according to previous figures submitted by DHS to the federal government), to 32 percent in March, 2010 [p.31].

And as noted at the start of this post, figures in the latest report add up to nearly 1,500 children expelled from the homes of relatives because of the licensing issue.  The previous monitoring report put this figure at about 1,800.  It’s not clear if some or all of these 1,500 are in addition to the 1,800, or if this simply is a revised count.  My best guess is it’s some of each, and the real total since the consent decree took effect might be about 2,400.

Nor do we know what happened to the children.  In some cases, they may have gone home to their own parents.  In others there may have been good reason to move them.  But it’s likely that in many of these cases, DHS inflicted the enormous trauma of another separation from family and another change in placement – into the homes of total strangers - on innocent children, just to satisfy the bureaucratic obsessions of Marcia Lowry and her colleagues at CR.

CR does not even pretend that this is about safety.  The licensing requirements, based on the assumption that foster care will be provided by middle-class strangers, are filled with minutiae not needed to keep children healthy and safe.  Rather this is about money.  The federal government won’t help reimburse the cost of foster care unless the home is licensed.

That also means licensing can provide genuine benefits for the relatives – entitling them to the same level of monthly reimbursement as strangers.  So it makes perfect sense to encourage grandparents to seek licensing and help them meet the requirements.  What makes no sense is taking away the grandchildren over it.


And the harm doesn’t stop there. In order to get all these grandparents licensed – or expel the grandchildren from their homes – DHS had to create one more mini-bureaucracy, a whole bunch of newly-minted “licensing specialists” who could be doing genuinely useful work instead.

To the extent that there is any good news, it’s that the army doesn’t seem to be led very well.  Call it the upside of incompetence: the whole licensing process is way behind schedule.

Unfortunately, the DHS disaster, it doesn’t end here.  There’s the failure to implement controls on admissions to residential treatment centers, the failure to get a grip on abuse in substitute care and so on.  There may even be cases in which children enter and leave Michigan foster care but the case never is reported as an entry at all.

The Michigan horror show never seems to end.

Tomorrow: More on the DHS data disaster