Monday, July 2, 2012

Child welfare in Michigan: Why let a few hundred “missing” foster children spoil the party?

            It was another love fest at federal court in Detroit last week, during a hearing on the dreadful consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights (CR).

            According to one news account, the judge overseeing the decree praised “a different day, a different mindset, and a different atmosphere” in court compared to when the original settlement was reached in October, 2008.  According to another, a CR lawyer praised DHS for "some really important strides."

            No kidding.  The current director of Michigan DHS, Maura Corrigan, and the director of CR, Marcia Lowry, have identical outlooks: Both have contempt for birth families (Corrigan literally walked out on them during their one and only chance to tell their stories to one of those Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions that states and localities love to name to avoid actually changing their systems) both view permanence for children only in terms of adoption and neither cares about the slash- and-burn budget cuts in support for impoverished families used to finance their so-called reforms.  (For full details see our reports on Michigan child welfare.)

            Corrigan also is the one who wrote an op-ed column for the Detroit Free Press under the headline “Removing children from families always follows legal procedures” at the very time probation officers were illegally rubber-stamping the names of judges on orders removing children from their homes.

            So of course they get along famously.  The so-called progress largely involves hiring hundreds of new caseworkers to tear apart more families (financed in part by cutting family preservation and public assistance programs) and extending foster care until age 21.

            Amid all the celebration there is not one word about the hundreds, perhaps thousands of foster children who have gone “missing” thanks to the consent decree.

            They’re not literally missing, of course.  Someone knows where each child is individually – the foster parents and caseworkers, mostly.  But when it comes to their collective fate, they are entirely off the radar.  Corrigan and Lowry appear content to keep it that way.  They've adopted their own "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  In public, at least, Lowry's group doesn't ask and Corrigan's agency doesn't tell. 

            The children in question are those who were kicked out of the homes of grandparents or other relatives when those relatives couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with the ten pages of hypertechnical requirements to become formally licensed as a foster parent.  The consent decree requires that loving grandparents and other relatives, who often are poor, comply with exactly the same requirements as the middle-class strangers for whom those requirements originally were designed, unless they can obtain a waiver.  The consent decree deliberately makes those waivers very hard to obtain.

            Of course, all foster homes should be required to meet minimal health and safety standards – and all child welfare agencies should be required to provide the help needed to bring the homes up to those standards. But the Michigan foster care licensing requirements go way beyond that.  As I’ve noted before, the apartment where President Obama was raised by his grandmother would not have qualified under these regulations.  Some relatives simply may be too poor to provide all the required middle-class creature comforts.

            But Lowry, the ultimate bureaucrat, has shown that she doesn’t give a damn.  Licensing brings in federal money so the children be damned.  (Licensing also makes the relatives eligible for higher payments – no one is saying they shouldn’t be allowed to be licensed if they want it.)

            But damned to where?  Lowry doesn’t know, and DHS isn’t telling.

            The only clues to what is going on are in the periodic reports issued by the monitor for the decree.  The figures provided in those reports are confusing – and the most recent such report mentions only the number of unlicensed homes closed without any mention of the number of children affected.  But it appears that more than 2,000 children have been kicked out of homes with relatives since the decree went into effect.

            Where did they go?

            ● In some cases, they may have gone back to their own homes, almost always a positive outcome.

            ● In other cases, though children were forced to move, the home really might have been substandard and closing the home may have been valid.

            ● And in other cases (now that the monitor is reporting only on homes, not children) the home actually might not have had any children in it.

            But that probably still leaves hundreds of children needlessly kicked out of the homes of loving relatives and forced to live with strangers.  They may be bouncing from foster home to foster home and /or facing abuse in foster care, all to satisfy Marcia Lowry’s licensing fetish and the hostility to families she shares with Maura Corrigan. 

            The hostility runs so deep that I can find no public statement from either Lowry or Corrigan expressing the slightest concern about these children or the slightest interest in finding out what happened to them.

            The monitor, Kevin Ryan, says he’s trying to find out what happened to the children, but only those who were expelled from relative homes after July, 2011.  Why that date?  Because that’s when a new consent decree superseded the original consent decree, so he has no authority before that date.   

            So when it comes to all the children expelled from the homes of relatives between October, 2008 when the first decree was signed and July, 2011, when the second decree was signed, absolutely no one is inquiring into their status.

            After all, if they did, it might spoil the party.