Detroit — A federal judge congratulated the state Wednesday for making strides toward meeting a court mandate to overhaul its troubled foster care system, but a report from a court-appointed monitor said more needs to be done to ensure children's safety.
During a progress hearing in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Judge Nancy Edmunds told representatives with the Michigan Department of Human Services and Children's Rights, a children's advocacy group, that she is confident the department is taking the necessary measures to reform.
Five years ago, the state entered a consent decree with the New York-based watchdog group following accusations that youth were endangered while in DHS care.
A revised settlement agreement was entered in 2011 after the state struggled to stay on track with its reform commitment.
"Let me congratulate the state for a huge amount of progress in so many areas," Edmunds said, according to a news release from DHS. "It's remarkable how much progress has been made."
Sara Bartosz, a staff attorney with Children's Rights, attended the hearing and echoed some of Edmunds' comments.
"The system that was sued in 2006 is not the system of today," said Bartosz, noting that DHS workers are more organized and have smaller caseloads.
Still, DHS protects too few youth who are in the state's custody, said a report published Wednesday by Public Catalyst Group, the court-appointed monitor that is tracking the state's progress.
DHS workers are struggling to adequately investigate some allegations of abuse or neglect. They aren't doing enough to ensure children are placed in licensed, safe foster homes, the group says.
The report, which tracks the first half of 2012, is the sixth to document the state's progress in meeting reform requirements.
Among the findings, Children's Rights said 241 children were abused or neglected while in the state's care. Of the 4,810 foster children living in the homes of relatives, 1,805 of those homes were not licensed, were not in the process of obtaining licenses or were waived by the state from licensing requirements.
The report did show that the state has made progress in other areas, including reducing the number of youths waiting to be adopted from 4,237 in September 2011 to 2,640 in January 2013. DHS has expanded resources for newly adoptive parents and provided youth exiting the system with health insurance.
DHS officials viewed the report's findings and Edmunds' comments as mostly positive.
"This is a good report overall and reflects our vision on the implantation of a wide range of reforms," said DHS director Maura Corrigan in a written statement.
Corrigan's office pointed to several initiatives met during the same period monitored by Children's Rights: opening a hotline for reporting abuse and neglect, meeting caseload standards and the meeting DHS' commitment to place children with guardians — most often with relatives.