State agencies work to reunite foster children, birth parents amid COVID-19

Two state agencies said Tuesday they are working together to ensure that children in Michigan's foster care system return to their permanent homes as quickly and as safely as possible during the COVID-19 emergency.

Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Supreme Court’s State Court Administrative Office announced a partnership aimed at reuniting children and biological families as quickly as possible while ensuring safety. 

The coronavirus pandemic has raised concerns about foster children not being able to see their birth parents, or be reunited permanently if appropriate, because of infection fears.

Foster care parents, biological parents and child welfare agencies had expressed concerns about children not being in touch with their birth parents due to restrictions on courts and other public agencies during the coronavirus crisis.

Child welfare agencies in Michigan are navigating a unique set of challenges in the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "stay home, stay safe" order. The emergency directive has cut off most birth parents from in-person visits with their children, and it's prompting worry that households providing foster care or completing certification will pause amid job losses and health and safety concerns for their own families. 

There are 12,500 children in foster care in Michigan and more than 200 who are close to being able to be reunited with one or both biological parents. State court officials said Tuesday they want to help the children reunite with their biological parents within the next month or sooner.

“The department believes that children should not be in foster care for any longer than absolutely necessary,” said JooYeun Chang, executive director of the Children’s Services Agency at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Even though we are facing numerous challenges right now, the urgency to achieve permanency for children and their families should not be slowed due to COVID-19.”

As part of an initiative called Rapid Permanency, Michigan’s public and private child welfare caseworkers, lawyers, and judges will identify cases eligible for reunification in which parents have made significant progress. As part of the process, the agencies, lawyers and judges will coordinate with one another to create a plan, with the involvement of parents, to address issues that stand in the way of family reunification. 

There also will be a plan to help the families get services to support the children being reunited permanently with their biological parents in a "safe and expedited" way.

The Supreme Court’s State Court Administrative Office is giving courts the resources to hold virtual hearings and developing recommendations to resolve issues that can cause delays in case reviews and orders to return children home when appropriate.

“During a time of crisis, taking steps to make sure children are with their parents is the right thing to do," Michigan Supreme Court Justice Megan Cavanagh said. "The goal of this partnership is to remove barriers to bringing families together as quickly as possible, and judges statewide are committed to making well-informed decisions that are in the best interest of every child.”

Officials said the team approach has worked in other state and is expected to help Michigan reach its goal of reunifying children with their biological families quicker when possible.

Bob Ennis, founder and president of the Ennis Center for Children, which provides services throughout southeast Michigan, said Tuesday the first goal is reunification, even if it has to be with supervised visits.

"We have to be very careful with that and (state officials) are," said Ennis.

He added that his agency has been able to reunite some foster children with their biological families through virtual proceedings which, he said, have gone surprisingly smoothly.

Ennis said he advocates reuniting the children and their birth parents "as fast as we can but also as planfully as we can."