Years later, child welfare still under judge's eye

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — Michigan’s child-welfare system remains under court oversight, 11 years and millions of dollars after a sweeping lawsuit challenged the way the state cares for vulnerable kids who are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

There is no dispute that Michigan has made improvements in many areas, including faster adoptions and the return of children to families from foster care. But there will be no exit from court without consistent performance in a wide variety of categories, such as health care, education and workload per caseworker.

The case could stretch beyond 2018 and be handed to a new governor — the third since the lawsuit was filed in 2006. A key issue: a computer system that has frustrated employees and made it difficult to measure progress.

“Our goal is to get out as quickly as possible,” said Herman McCall, the new director of the Children’s Services Agency. “We have a road map about what we need to accomplish and how long those things need to be in place.”

The cost to taxpayers has been substantial. Michigan so far has paid $14 million to outside experts who track progress and flaws. An advocacy group that brought the lawsuit, New York-based Children’s Rights, has received $8.5 million in legal fees. In addition, the state has paid $400,000 to be represented by John Bursch, a lawyer in private practice.

Sara Bartosz, a lawyer with Children’s Rights, said the pace of reform has been “slower than we hoped.”

“There are many commitments the state made that are vital to the safety and well-being of children,” she said in an interview. “Those vital commitments have not been met. They’re far from being met.”

In 2006, the Department of Human Services under Gov. Jennifer Granholm was sued on behalf of thousands of kids who were trapped in a cycle of physical and emotional abuse due to unfit foster families, miserable group homes and a lack of urgency by the state to do much about it. Early retirements and budget cuts had sapped the agency.

The state in 2008 struck a deal with Children’s Rights to make improvements, but it fell apart in 2010. Adoption goals were missed, kids in foster care were turning 18 without a permanent home and the state couldn’t produce basic statistics.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s election that year led to a new agreement with Children’s Rights. In 2016, a third deal was reached, cutting the number of performance categories to 71 from 240.

The department was overseeing 12,216 kids, half of them age 6 or younger, at the end of June 2016. Foster families were taking care of 35 percent of the children; 33 percent were with relatives; 9 percent were in institutions or shelters. The rest were with their parents or other caregivers. During a recent update in court, monitors appointed by the judge
reported success in many categories. But data were incomplete in other areas and couldn’t be analyzed. Bursch, a lawyer for the state, said the complexity of the software is
“deeper than the software that uses.”

“It’s really been a lot more daunting than people believed,” U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said.

The monitors also have raised concerns about the state’s response to abuse allegations, finding some investigations were skipped unless there were obvious injuries. Bursch said it was “offensive” to suggest that child-welfare workers might be ignoring abuse but “impossible to have a perfect system” with more than 12,000 children.

Michigan is struggling to license relatives who take in abused or neglected kids, another goal to be met. A license brings financial aid and other benefits, but a license for relatives isn’t legally required.

McCall said some people “just want to take care of a loved one” and see the licensing process as intrusive.