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Article of Interest - Foster Care in Michigan

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Audit: Foster Care System Lacks Oversight
Gongwer News Service, August 17, 2005
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The Department of Human Services has not been providing the oversight needed in the foster care system, nor has it met federal goals for the system, said Auditor General Thomas McTavish in a sharply critical report released Wednesday.

Among the key findings in the performance audit of the Children's Foster Care Program, covering October 1, 2000, through May 31, 2004, the then-Department of Human Services had not conducted criminal background checks on those working in the foster care system, had not provided required visits to foster children and had not monitored contractors to be sure they were delivering proper services.

But Human Services Director Marianne Udow said the audit looked only at paperwork and not at the actual function of the program.

"It is an audit that is focused on documentation," she said. "What it didn't look at was the overall safety of children in the foster care system. We do believe children are safe in foster care.

"We think much more fundamental is to change the child welfare system so we are engaged in prevention and early intervention," Ms. Udow said. "That's what we're doing with the family to family plan."

The department is, however, working to improve on the documentation that auditors found lacking or missing. Ms. Udow pointed, for instance, to an agreement with the Department of State Police that would provide Human Services with an automated connection to the Law Enforcement Information Network to complete and record criminal background checks.

Law requires the state to provide criminal background checks on anyone in the foster care system having contact with children, including adults living in a foster home but not providing care to the children. But, in one of the five more serious "material" findings in the report, auditors said those background checks were not being completed.

Material findings in an audit could affect the operations of a program, while reportable conditions are areas where the department could improve its operations.

Of the 10,000 foster care providers, auditors found 321 with criminal convictions issued during the audit period that might have disqualified them from providing care. Of 2,900 other adults living in foster homes, auditors found 32 with convictions that could disqualify the home from providing foster care.

Auditors reviewed 16 of the providers with convictions and found in 12 cases the department did not have documentation that it had conducted background checks during the audit period. And of six homes where other adults had convictions, five of those had no record of background checks of those adults.

While the department agreed it had a responsibility to conduct background checks, it disagreed that it had failed in that responsibility. Officials said the finding that there was not a record of a background check for the 12 foster care providers was based on lack of a specific form to record the check, but they said that form was not yet required when 11 of those cases were opened.

And officials noted that recent federal audits had indicated the state's background check system, which includes the child abuse registry as well as the Law Enforcement Information Network, was a strength of the program.

Auditors said they had not asked only for the current required forms, but for any information that would provide proof of a criminal history check.

While officials agreed periodic background checks of providers would be helpful, they said there are no laws or policies requiring those checks.

The report was the second consecutive audit to find the department and its contractors were not conducting sufficient visits to foster homes, another material finding against the department. Of 106 files reviewed, 96 did not have documents to show workers had conducted the minimum required visits to foster children.

"Without periodic caseworker visits, DHS cannot effectively assess the safety and appropriateness of the environment the children are in or observe the physical well-being and demeanor of the children and their interaction with their foster parents and parents from whom they were removed," the report said. "In addition, without periodic caseworker visits, DHS cannot always be sure that the children, their parents, and their foster parents receive timely, relevant services."

Department officials agreed on the need for visits, as well as on the need to document those visits. But they said in many cases the visits were happening, but not being documented. A new system is helping workers to automate the documentation of those visits, they said.

In lesser findings, auditors also cited the department for not having timely foster care service plans and for not ensuring that foster children are receiving, and having documented, needed health care.

Officials again disagreed that the services were not being provided, but agreed that they should be better documented.

In another material finding, auditors said the department was not effectively overseeing the contractors running parts of the system. "An improved monitoring process should help DHS ensure that contracted agencies provide the level of foster care services for which they were contracted and also provide DHS with information to assess the effectiveness of each contracted agency in meeting performance standards specified in their contracts," the report said.

The department's goal was reviews of each contractor at least every two years. But of 172 contractors, 90 had no records of any reviews. Among the other 82, 29 showed the most recent review between 25 months and 70 months prior to the audit period. And 22 contract files could not be located.

Where corrective action plans were needed, the department was also not ensuring that they were submitted within 30 days of the report. And the department was not always following up that the plans were being implemented within 60 days as required.

The department agreed that it was not meeting the frequency of reviews required in its policy, but said it has since changed the policy to reflect the loss of two monitor positions to early retirements.

But officials disagreed the reviews it conducted were inadequate. The on-site visits and follow-up work have been prioritized from the foster care program, but they said the Office of Child and Adult Licensing also reviews many of the facilities. They said caseworkers also keep tabs on contractors through their visits with foster parents, families and children.

Auditors, citing the finding about child visits, noted foster care workers were not in regular contact with foster parents, families and children as the department claimed.

Auditors also cited the department for not ensuring agreements were in place under the Interstate Compact on the Placing of Children before children were moved to out-of-state foster homes, another of the material findings. Of seven cases where children were placed in other states, five were ordered by the courts. But in only one of those was an interstate agreement reached.

DHS officials agreed that the agreements should be in place and said in most cases they are, but they said with or without the agreements changing a child's placement requires a court order. In the cases where the auditors found placements should have changed but were not, the department was unable to obtain such an order, they said.

Auditors also cited as a material condition that the department had not met any of the seven federal child welfare outcomes. "DHS's inability to achieve substantial conformity with federally required standards indicates that DHS may not have provided effective services to children who were removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect," the report said.

Among those outcomes is permanency of living situations, maintenance of family relationships, protection from abuse, and provision of appropriate services.

While the department admitted that it has not met the outcomes, it disagreed that reflected poorly on the service it provides, noting that no state has met the outcomes. It has implemented a program improvement plan, accepted by federal officials in May 2004, and has met the goals of that plan for the past three quarters.

But auditors found the department did not have a process to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. In particular, it did not have measurable outcomes and had not developed data collection or reports to support any goals.

The department disagreed with the finding to the extent that it asked that the finding be removed from the report.

Gates: Schools, Not Taxes Key to High-Tech Jobs
Gongwer News Service, August 17, 2005

Cutting-edge companies will locate and expand in states based more on their talent pool and less on their tax policy, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told thousands of rapt delegates at Wednesday's session of the 2005 National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mr. Gates also said he found it "scary" that nations like India and China are putting more emphasis on science and engineering than are students in the United States. Reports that the fastest growing college major is physical education is not a good long-term sign for the U.S. economy, he said.

To applause, Mr. Gates said states should look at their education policies, both K-12 and higher education, as one of their highest priorities.

Often noted as the world's best-known and richest college dropout, Mr. Gates said it was "ironic" that the workers Microsoft looks to hire have to have four-year college degrees, and are both conversant with technology and willing to take risks. That budding Microsoft workers have to have college degrees brought laughter from the crowd.

Mr. Gates commanded attention from the audience such as few other speakers at an NCSL meeting have done. Literally every seat in the ballroom where he spoke was taken, and people stood two and three deep along the walls and in the back of the room to hear him. The undercurrent of whispered conversations often present at addresses was missing. The only interruptions being the ring of cell phones, and generally those getting the calls simply turned their phones off rather than miss what Mr. Gates was saying.

The U.S. has "no inherent" advantage in terms of personal character towards keeping its economy dominant, Mr. Gates said.

Where it did have a major advantage was in the quality of its universities and overall education, he said. Where top universities are located is where new companies dealing with the biosciences and other high technology projects will locate he said.

Having topflight universities also presents an advantage in drawing intellectual talent to the U.S., he said. Being an "IQ magnet is a self-enforcing thing" because brilliant people want to be with other brilliant people.

While the U.S. still has an advantage in its universities, other countries, particularly India and China are catching up, and that is a worry, he said.

Another concern is that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is getting harder for highly talented individuals to come into the U.S., and that could have an economic effect in the long term, he said.

Asked what will be more important to economic development, education or low taxes, Mr. Gates said companies with breakthrough technologies will "be far more sensitive to the quality of the talent instead of to the tax policy."

California, he said, is a perfect example of a state that saw huge growth in the high tech industries despite a relatively unfavorable tax climate.

He acknowledged that taxes could play a greater role in manufacturing and other industries he knows little about.

But overall the need for research and development, and their requirement for educational strength, trumps other issues in a state, he said.


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