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Lessons for healing state foster care system

Lawmakers returning to Lansing or heading to the Capital for the first time will have a full plate of issues to deal with, but mustn't forget the most vulnerable of the state's population who are supposed to be protected by the state's broken foster care system.

In a past edition we highlighted longstanding issues within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and its Child Protective Services division, which is currently under federal oversight for failing to adequately protect and serve children it's required to by law. For those who don't recall or aren't aware of the situation, we offer a recap.

Starting with the good work, Michigan has lowered the number of children in the foster care system from more than 20,000 in 2006 to under 14,000 in the spring of 2018, including the number of children waiting to be adopted from more than 7,000 to under 3,000. The state also implemented a centralized intake system for all reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation, which has helped result in better consistency and efficiency. Further, the department has stepped up training for foster parents and given child safety goals highest priority.

Additional improvements in the system also are in the works, which lawmakers should familiarize themselves with and ensure that funding for foster care programs and protective services don't get held up.

The bad news for legislators and those involved in the system is that problems aren't new, and continue to fester despite federal court oversight, resulting in outcomes that can accurately be described as both ugly and evil.

As we noted, problems in the foster care system were noted by state auditors as far back as 15 years ago, following the killings of at least two four-year-old children who were beaten to death at the hands of their foster parents. The deaths followed a 2002 assessment in which recommendations by state auditors failed to be implemented.

A follow-up audit in 2005, after the deaths, again noted that documented visits by caseworkers weren't being adequately done. The department's failure to act was so gross, in fact, that auditors repeated their previous recommendation – this time in all capital letters for emphasis. Despite the recommendations and warnings, that year another child died at the hands of his foster parents. Later investigations revealed the boy was denied food, tied to his bed, lead around on a leash, locked in a basement and beaten with a hammer for years prior to his death; but the state failed to properly investigate despite allegations of abuse being made.

While some state officials in our article said they were encouraged by changes being made to address problems, a state audit released two months after the story was published showed outside concerns were valid, with more than a dozen serious issues highlighted.

Among the most recent findings, auditors discovered: MDHHS didn't appropriately commence 17 percent of reviewed investigations within its own timeframe; the department couldn't support that investigators conducted clearances in over 70 percent of investigations reviewed; investigators failed to conduct criminal history checks for 50 percent of cases reviewed; the state couldn't show it supported a child protective services review for family and household members of foster children in 40 percent of investigations reviewed; investigators failed to conducted face-to-face contact with victims within the required time frame in 11 percent of cases reviewed, and failed to document interviews of children in seven percent of reviewed investigations. Additional issues included a failure to refer investigations to prosecutors in half of the cases reviewed by auditors; failure to assess the risk for future harm in over 35 percent of cases reviewed by auditors; and other issues.

Many of the issues stem from a lack of staffing, meaning caseworkers have been severely overloaded. The state has also failed to implement all the changes and technological improvements designed to address the issue. Meanwhile, the department continues to work toward ending its federal oversight.

With the number of competing priorities facing state lawmakers, it would be easy for them to forget children who are more easily hidden away from sight. We encourage legislators that protecting our state's children is a top priority. Doing so isn't just a legal obligation, but should be a moral imperative for lawmakers.

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