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Children's Rights Sues Over Michigan's Foster Care System

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From the Minutes of the November 1, 2006 meeting of the Michigan Child Care Task Force: Report from Elizabeth Carey, Executive Director, Michigan Federation for Children and Families, on the current Children’s Rights lawsuit that has been filed against the State of Michigan/Department of Human Services regarding Michigan’s foster care system.

Children’s Rights, an advocacy organization, has filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan/Department of Human Services regarding Michigan’s foster care system.

-The full lawsuit filing can be found at

-There are roughly 19,000 children in the Michigan child welfare system. The lawsuit names children with case examples of child welfare system failures. Overall, the child welfare system is extremely under-funded both publicly and privately. Children’s Rights has sued many states. Some states, like Georgia, have chosen to fight the lawsuit and have spent millions over several years while others have chosen to negotiate and settle. Michigan began formal negotiations and a settlement process in September 2006. Michigan is using a mediator between the state and Children’s Rights. Michigan’s Department of Human Services has put together an advisory group, including private providers, to assist in the process. DHS will have private discussions with Children’s Rights, but will use the advisory group to reflect ideas before committing to Children’s Rights.

*Excerpts from the federal lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights Inc. in August 2006 against Michigan’s child welfare system.

From the Children’s Rights lawsuit: “As a result of serious systemic deficiencies that have been known to Defendants for many years, the Michigan child welfare system inflicts numerous harms on Plaintiff Children, including:

a. Maltreatment or neglect of foster children while in state custody.

Too often children brought into Michigan’s foster care custody because they have suffered abuse or neglect are subject to further maltreatment while in the custody of DHS. This maltreatment occurs because of Defendants’ failure to (i) appropriately screen and oversee foster homes; (ii) segregate sexually reactive children (often themselves victims of prior sexual abuse) or physically aggressive children from other foster children; and (iii) adequately monitor and support caregivers, including unlicensed caregivers, who provide homes for children in the foster care custody of DHS.

b. A lack of basic physical and mental health services for foster children. Michigan’s foster children are routinely denied the services necessary to address known psychological, behavioral and emotional issues due to the absence of a minimally adequate mental health system. Moreover, due to agency cost-cutting measures, children are frequently left in foster homes that are unable to meet their special needs and in which their mental health further deteriorates. Foster children are also routinely denied timely basic medical and dental examinations and services.

c. Excessive lengths of stay in state custody. Michigan’s foster children are unnecessarily spending large portions of their lives – and sometimes their entire childhoods – in foster care custody. Defendants fail to provide foster children with appropriate case management, case plans and the services, including adoption-related services, required to prevent children from growing up in state custody. Michigan’s foster children who cannot return home are routinely denied the opportunity to be adopted, and many are discharged from the foster care system at the state’s age of majority without the life skills necessary to live independently.

d. Frequent moves among multiple placements. Subjecting foster children, who have already undergone the trauma of being removed from an abusive or neglectful home, to repeated changes in their primary caregivers causes serious harm to their development and psychological health. Yet, data collected by DHS and reported to the federal government shows that over 62% of the children in DHS foster care custody during fiscal year 2002, the last year for which such data is available, had been in foster care for more than 12 months, and over 40% of these children had already experienced three or more different placements during their lengthy foster care episodes.

These continuing harms to Plaintiff Children are caused by a number of severe deficiencies in Michigan’s foster care system, including:

a. A severe shortage of foster homes. Defendants fail to maintain an adequate number and variety of foster homes and other appropriate placements for foster children. Foster children are placed wherever a bed or “slot” is available and not according to their individual needs. As a result, foster children are too often moved from one foster home to another because their needs are not being met, repeatedly suffering emotional harm.

b. High caseloads and turnover. Caseworkers responsible for overseeing the care and protection of children in Defendants’ foster care custody often have dangerously high caseloads that are frequently multiples of the national standard of 12-15 foster children per caseworker. High caseloads and an unsupportive environment for many caseworkers have led to soaring caseworker turnover rates of almost 40%. The DHS early retirement programs implemented in 1997 and again in 2002 caused significant numbers of experienced DHS caseworkers to retire, resulting in a largely inexperienced frontline and supervisory child welfare workforce.

c. Poor monitoring of child safety. Michigan’s foster homes are often inadequately screened for safety. The State Auditor’s 2005 “Performance Audit of the Children’s Foster Care Program” identified more than 320 homes that had never undergone a safety assessment as required by DHS policy. Additionally, high caseloads prevent caseworkers from devoting the time needed to adequately monitor the safety of foster children assigned to them. As of March 2006, DHS reported that more than 30% of foster children statewide were not receiving even the minimally required monthly contact from their caseworker.

d. Poor planning and services to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes. Defendants routinely fail to provide foster children with the appropriate case-planning and adoption-related services required to ensure that children do not languish in their care. As a result, there are more than 6300 children in the foster care custody of DHS who are legal orphans – or “permanent wards” – for whom parental rights have been terminated, but no adoptive home has been identified. More than 400 of these children age out of the child welfare system each year, ill-equipped for adult life.

e. Grossly inadequate payments to foster care providers. The payments that Defendants provide to those caring for foster children do not even approach the actual cost of care for a child. DHS pays foster parents as little as $433 per month to raise a two-year-old foster child, though the federal government estimates that the average monthly cost of raising a similarly aged child in the urban Midwest is $733, net of health care expenses. Though Defendants increasingly rely upon relatives, such as retired grandparents, to care for its foster children, Defendants provide inadequate, and often no, financial support to these caregivers who are themselves frequently of limited means.

f. Fiscal waste. Michigan regularly fails to collect available federal funds for foster children in state custody, foregoing many millions of dollars that could be used to provide desperately needed homes and services for children. The State Auditor reported in December 2005 that the State now may be exposed to over $99 million in reimbursements to the federal government due to the mismanagement of its federally-subsidized child welfare programs including Title IV-E foster care, adoption assistance, and the Chafee independent living program for teen youth. These failures to properly access and manage federal funding are particularly glaring given that Michigan is among the nation’s bottom 12 states in the ratio of state and local funds to federal funds directed to support its child welfare system.


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