By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING – The Department of Human Services has withdrawn a motion to end federal oversight of its child welfare program and instead will negotiate for a new settlement with the children’s group that forced the intervention, according to department officials.
Bob Wheaton, communications manager for the department, said by email that federal Judge Nancy Edmunds has encouraged DHS and advocacy group Children’s Rights to sit down and re-negotiate.
Wheaton said the goal of a December motion to completely end oversight had been to obtain more flexibility in meeting the needs of children in Michigan’s child welfare system. Children’s Rights declined to comment.
The federal oversight stems from a lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights in 2008 charging that Michigan caseloads were too high, and that, with 19,000 kids in the foster system, not enough children were finding permanent homes.
The state has met or substantially complied with 165 of 211 federal court requirements to date, including dramatically improving the rate at which children are finding permanent homes, Wheaton said.
“Of course our ultimate goal is to have Michigan regain complete control of its child welfare system,” Wheaton said. “That will allow us to focus all of our attention and resources on meeting the needs of vulnerable children.”
Lawmakers and state children’s advocates had been skeptical of removing federal oversight prematurely.
“Just because they say the numbers are improving doesn’t mean they are,” said Rep. John Chirkun, a Democrat from Roseville.
Financial and organizational stress on the Department of Human Services due to budget cuts and an impending merger with the Department of Community Health make this a bad time to be considering dropping oversight, he said.
“They’re going to be laying off 100 people and with the shrinking budget, I don’t think it would be wise for the court administrative office to quit oversight,” Chirkun said. “They won’t have the money to oversee everything that’s going on and make the needed changes.”
A September 2014 progress report by Public Catalyst, which is monitoring DHS response to the federal requirements, concluded the department had not met the targeted reduction in caseloads per worker.
The department also fell short of requirements to provide timely services and guarantee two worker-to-child contacts each month during the first two months of placement, the report said. DHS was also unable to demonstrate compliance with a variety of medical and educational targets.
However, the report points out substantial progress, noting many targets were missed by 5 percent or less.
Some children’s advocates have been uncertain about the value of continued federal oversight of the child welfare system.
Saba Gebrai, director of the Parks West Foundation and its Blue Babies program, which offers care and support to youth who age out of the state system, said while she didn’t think the state was ready to see federal oversight lifted, the arrangement should be reviewed and other options considered.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet, honestly, and there are a lot of people who agree,” Gebrai said. “We need the federal oversight, but a new solution needs to be considered. … I don’t think this is the right way, but it is the only way right now.”
Gebrai said some of the federal requirements have made the state gun-shy when it comes to opening new cases or too eager to close cases, in order to keep overall numbers down.
The department’s push to get more kids away from the system and get them adopted is key, Gebrai said, but she added that care must be taken in the process.
“We’re giving children away like puppies to all these different people, without adding human factors,” she said.
Chirkun, however, doesn’t share these reservations.
“When you’re talking about numbers, you’re talking about complaints, or the number of things that got done, or the number of children in the system,” Chirkun said. “For me it was a plus, because my foster child got the care he needed.”
The second-term representative has had two foster children under his care, one of whom has aged out of the system and another who is still in high school.
Chirkun confirmed that he and another legislator and foster carer, Republican Rep. Jim Runestad of White Lake Township, will be taking a bipartisan approach to foster care reform this term.
Chirkun said the state needs to provide more support for foster kids, both in and out of the system.
“I think the social workers should be granted more power to be able to get the kids help they need, whether it’s counseling or tutoring, or anything else,” he said.
The ability of the DHS to address these issues, and to continue to meet federal targets, was called into question following the Feb. 19 release of the Kids Count in Michigan 2015 report by the Michigan League for Public Policy. The report analyzes state and county-wide trends of child well-being over a six year period.
This year’s report shows a drop in the number of children in out-of-home care, but it also identifies a severe deficit in the range and variety of services in local communities, particularly in the rural counties.
Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Michigan League for Public Policy project director for Kids Count in Michigan, said she wasn’t able to comment on the DHS’s court case but that impending budget cuts for the department raise questions about whether problems highlighted in the report can be addressed.
“We know that funding has been cut from the Department of Human Services, so the issue of the lack of preventive services that are available is clearly a problem,” Zehnder-Merrell said.
Wheaton said the continued federal oversight may not help in that area.
“The safety and well-being of children and finding them permanent homes remains our prime focus – regardless of whether we are or are not under federal court oversight,” Wheaton said by email. “We do have to devote financial resources and attention to reporting data to the court while we are under oversight.”
Additional resources for editors:
Same-sex couples still waiting for adoption rights
Foster care stories inspire moves to reform