Monday, May 9, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Maura Corrigan flunks her first big test ...

...and WXYZ-TV in Detroit documents how the system really works.

There was one person who could have put an immediate stop to the suffering endured by Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, the 13-year-old needlessly torn from everyone she knew and loved and institutionalized for seven weeks, after her mother took her off psychiatric medications that were making the child’s mental health problems worse.  One person could have ended the suffering with little more than a wave of the hand.  One person could have said: We were wrong; this child has suffered enough, send her home.

That one person is the new director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, Maura Corrigan.

Corrigan had been a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court when Gov. Rick Snyder named her to the job in January (reportedly after she actively sought it).  As usual, the issue isn't motivation.  Corrigan always has had the best interests of children at heart - as she saw those interests.  But she saw them much as a 19th Century "child saver" would.

Corrigan had long been one of the more regressive forces in Michigan child welfare.  But there was hope she was beginning to change.  Her decisions certainly had gotten better in recent years, so there was hope that that a “new, improved” Corrigan was emerging.

But Corrigan’s behavior in the Godboldo case suggests we’re back to Corrigan version 1.0.  Corrigan allowed Godboldo’s daughter to suffer for those seven weeks.  For most of that time she was silent about it (and, as far as I know, reporters never asked her about the case).   When she did speak, according to MLive Detroit, she sought to justify that suffering.  The website reports that Corrigan told a local radio station:

"You could say that there is an abstract debate about holistic medicine versus what a traditional doctor would say, but that is going to be a very considered decision by a judge about whether there is evidence." … While she declined to discuss specifics of the case, Corrigan said CPS did not unilaterally decide to remove the girl from Godboldo's custody.

"Before you would do something so serious, as to take a child away from its parents, you need a judge -- a neutral and detached judge -- to decide whether you've got enough evidence to do that."


Corrigan has to know this is nonsense.

For starters, the case is not about holistic vs. traditional medicine.  Godboldo had agreed to try a powerful psychiatric medication, Risperdal, on her daughter.  But the agreement she signed authorizing the treatment also said Godboldo was free to stop that treatment – which she did when it made her daughter’s symptoms worse.

Corrigan also knows her comments about the court process amount to the Disney version. Here’s how it really works:

In every state, caseworkers have the power to remove children entirely on their own authority.  If they decide to go to court first, they rush in on their own, claim it’s an emergency, and claim there’s no time for the judge to hold a hearing where the family can be heard.  Having heard only one side of the story, and fearful of what will happen to his career if he says no and something goes wrong, the judge rubber-stamps the child welfare agency request.

And, of course, there is no possible excuse for Corrigan allowing her agency to try to snatch Godboldo’s child back two hours after she was freed.

Just last night, WXYZ-TV in Detroit documented how Corrigan's Disney version compares with reality in Michigan.

But there is a special irony in Corrigan talking about neutral judges.  I know of no prominent figure in the American judiciary who has done more to undermine judicial neutrality in child welfare than Maura Corrigan.  In fact, while on the bench, she undermined two noble principles at once: judicial neutrality and permanence for children.

She did that by turning the court into a propaganda arm for promoting adoption at the expense of any other outcome for children.

Adoption is a vitally-important option for some children.  But it is not the only way to achieve permanence. Indeed, all else being equal, on the hierarchy of best outcomes, adoption by strangers  generally ranks fifth, behind not taking away the child in the first place, reunifying the child with her or his own parents, adoption by a relative and guardianship by a relative.


But not to Maura Corrigan. At least not if her actions, public statements and what she did to the Michigan Supreme Court website are indications.

Among her first acts upon becoming the court’s Chief Justice was to create a task force on adoption – not a task force on permanence, a task force only on adoption.  And one would think the court was an adoption agency, given how Corrigan slathered its web site with promotional material about adoption and “adoption day” events.

I’ve noted before that these annual Adoption Days really should be called National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, since they show how a system that claims its first priority when a child is taken is reunification celebrates only the supposed lower priority, adoption.

We noted the first time we raised the issue on this Blog, no place is this hypocrisy more apparent than in Michigan, where Corrigan takes pride in having orchestrated more such celebrations than any other state.  She has not lifted a finger to promote celebrations of family reunification.

As for judicial neutrality in the first of our 2009 reports on Michigan child welfare we noted that, thanks largely to Corrigan

In theory it is possible for one or more justices of this court to give a speech touting adoption in the morning, preside at an adoption luncheon at noon – and hear an appeal of a termination of parental rights that afternoon. If the reality of justice depends at least in part on the perception, it is fair to ask if the actions of Justice Corrigan and her colleagues risk compromising that reality.


Corrigan’s priorities also were on display during a meeting of an ineffectual Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission created by Corrigan’s predecessor, Ismael Ahmed.  The incredibly-unwieldy “task force” had more than 80 members – including Corrigan - but, of course, not one birth parent who’d lost a child to the system.  The parents got one chance to give one presentation to the task force – but not to Corrigan, who had better things to do than listen.

As we noted in our first Michigan report:

Corrigan, who had been present at the meeting earlier and would return later, was absent during the birth parents’ presentation. Her spokeswoman said she had to return to her office to deal with "pressing court business" - preparing for the Supreme Court's weekly conference at which cases are discussed and decided. 

But Corrigan was back at the Task Force that afternoon, in time to chastise a task force committee, harshly and at length, for putting forward a recommendation that would require a little more work from the courts in support of family reunification at a time when their budget is being cut.  The task force promptly backed down.

Just last month, four months into her tenure running DHS, (and with Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter already institutionalized) Corrigan gave a speech outlining her priorities.  According to The Detroit News:

The department, along with other state agencies, recently submitted to Snyder lists of areas where it plans to show measurable results. Among them, Corrigan said today, were driving down the number of children maltreated in foster care; reducing the number of foster children who await adoption or guardianship longer than 24 months; and quicken the response time of investigations into child abuse or neglect.

What gets measured gets gone.  And there’s nothing on Corrigan’s list of measurable outcomes about keeping children out of the system in the first place, or reunifying families.


Corrigan’s failure is even more striking when her priorities are compared to those of the other state supreme court justice to step off the bench to run a state child welfare agency this year: Joette Katz in Connecticut.

Here’s what she told Hartford Magazine:

There has to be a lot more family engagement. There have to be differential responses. Obviously, you have cases where there is high risk and you’ve got to get in there and treat it a little more aggressively. But if it’s a case where there is what we would call minimal risk, there are ways of approaching that family.

Instead of a forensic investigation, it can be much more friendly: “What do you need? What can we bring to you? How can we make your situation better? How can we help you with this child?” It has to be a kinder, gentler approach to a lot of our families ­– an almost voluntary engagement.

Some children are so afraid of being separated from their family that they won’t tell on their abusive parents. That just shows you the [family] bond. It used to be that everything was all about safety, and some children obviously have to be removed. But it is [also] about well-being. We used to think, “Do no harm.” What we understand now is that even when we have to remove a child, we are doing harm. That’s why we need to understand there is that connection, and do what can we to facilitate that child’s re-entry into that family.

And while Michigan’s consent decree with the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” puts obstacles in the way of placing children with relatives instead of strangers, Katz is trying to clear away those obstacles in Connecticut – even though that state also is saddled with a settlement with CR.

So there was plenty of reason to be disappointed but no reason to be surprised at Maura Corrigan’s response to the Godboldo case.

But, believe it or not, things could be worse.  When it comes to leadership at the Michigan Department of Human Services, the bar for improvement is extremely low.  Corrigan replaced Ahmed and a “leadership team” (I use that term loosely), so awful that the independent monitor overseeing the state’s child welfare consent decree urged the new governor to replace it.  So, if nothing else, it will be difficult to Maura Corrigan to actually make Michigan child welfare worse.