Monitors issue 'devastating' review of Michigan's child welfare system

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Two court monitors' latest assessment of Michigan's child welfare system was described by a federal judge Thursday as "just devastating," despite a 15-year effort to reform the troubled system.

"It was really depressing to read how little the state has accomplished," said Judge Nancy Edmunds of the U.S. District Court of Michigan's Eastern District. "If anything, we've slipped backwards."

The latest report, prepared by monitors as part of a lawsuit settlement, identified a series of problems, including the state's lax oversight of institutions contracted to provide foster care services and cases in which child maltreatment investigations were only partially completed.

Monitors also highlighted cases in which children were improperly restrained, living in unsanitary conditions, left unattended after threatening to harm themselves and in other situations in which there are "unresolved risks of harm."

Detroit Federal Judge Nancy Edmunds said Thursday: "It was really depressing to read how little the state has accomplished" in reforming its child welfare system despite more than a decade of efforts under three gubernatorial administrations.

"Your honor, this report brings into sharp focus that after more than a decade, Michigan's child welfare system has without question substantially improved in certain areas," monitor Eileen Crummy told Edmunds in a Thursday virtual court hearing. "But Michigan remains far from completing improvements to child safety, permanency and well-being in other areas."

Court-appointed monitors, including Crummy, have watched over Michigan's child welfare system since 2008, the year the state settled a lawsuit filed by Children's Rights, a New York nonprofit advocacy group. Children's Rights sued in 2006 on behalf of children in the foster care system, accusing the state of failing to keep children safe, place them into adoption or reunify them with their families. 

In the settlement, the parties agreed to a list of improvements the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would make in the child welfare system. When it completes the list, the state can be removed from court supervision. The monitors write reports twice a year to update the court and plaintiffs on progress.

But the department continues to fall short of its goals, said Samantha Bartosz, lead counsel for Children's Rights.

"There doesn't seem to be an answer from the state in place to really change the situation, the peril, that kids face," she said in an interview Thursday. "One wonders, is this a failure in resources? Is there insufficient staff?...

"Whatever it is, this long into the reform there's no excuse for kids left in these kinds of unsafe situations. The state just has to get it done."

State health officials defended their reforms during the virtual hearing, touting improvements such as closing problematic youth homes, significantly reducing the number of children placed in foster care, conducting timelier investigations and reducing caseloads and improving training for child welfare workers.

"The department's continued progress is sustainable," said Demetrius Starling, executive director of the state department's Children's Services Agency.

"We have implemented many of the major structural changes needed to improve the child welfare system independently and proactively, therefore demonstrating our capacity to be nimble, to react to the various, complex and ever-changing needs of child welfare."

Details from monitors' report 

The report from court-appointed monitors Crummy and Kevin Ryan covered the second half of 2020, the first monitoring period completely within the coronavirus pandemic. They did not measure the state's performance on metrics that would be skewed by the pandemic, such as ensuring supervisors meet monthly with caseworkers.

The department made some progress in the latter half of 2020, monitors said, notably in reducing caseloads for Child Protective Services workers, generating accurate data and helping people who age out of the foster system access health insurance and other supports.

But the monitors highlighted instances in which the department identified violations at child caring institutions, or group foster care homes, but failed to adequately address them. As a result, they wrote, "repeat violations of a serious nature, such as physical intervention or improper restraints causing injuries," could have recurred.

They reported an instance in which multiple staff members of a child-caring institution were aware of a staff member's inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old resident but failed to intervene or report the behavior. The teen eventually reported the abuse, which launched an investigation. The staff members who failed to report the abuse did not face consequences, the monitors said. 

Monitors Crummy and Ryan also uncovered a spate of "maltreatment in care" investigations they say had been improperly reviewed. Of the 130 investigations they reviewed, monitors found state officials had failed to thoroughly review almost 25%.

Of those 32 cases that were not thoroughly reviewed, the monitors determined 19 should have resulted in licensing violations. 

Ryan and Crummy highlighted a case involving an 11-year-old girl with asthma who was repeatedly restrained at a group home. A "spit bag" was placed over her head during two or three events that caseworkers investigated. While caseworkers found the restraints were unnecessary or inappropriate, they did not consider the behavior to be considered maltreatment. The monitors disagreed. 

Assistant Attorney General Neil Giovanatti argued state officials were unable to respond directly to the examples the monitors placed in their report. Health and Human Services officials appreciated the opportunity to review those examples, he said, but added that maltreatment case outcomes "largely come down to a disagreement of judgment."

Many of the monitors' findings had more to do with procedural issues, like paperwork missing from reports, than actual risk to children, Giovanatti said. 

The use of restraints became a significant issue in Michigan foster care after 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks died in 2020 after he was tackled and restrained by staff members of a Kalamazoo youth home.

The use of restraints became a significant issue in Michigan foster care after 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks died in 2020. Fredericks died after he was tackled and restrained by staff members of a Kalamazoo youth home where he resided. The county medical examiner ruled his death a homicide

Shortly after his death, the state department curtailed the use of many restraints and prohibited the "prone" restraint.

State officials defend reforms

On Thursday, the two sides described markedly different progress in the court case that has languished in the monitoring stage for well over a decade. The case, now known as Dwayne B. v. Whitmer, was originally titled Dwayne B. v. Granholm. 

Bartosz of Children's Rights said the advocacy group is prepared to file a motion to hold the state in contempt of court if it doesn't make significant improvement before the next six-month monitoring term. She twice implored state leaders, specifically Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to turn their resources and attention toward the child welfare reform. 

Despite getting a what a judge called a "devastating" report from federal court monitors, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said the state intends in the next six months "to make additional progress to show the court our self-reliance and our commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of children under our care."

"We need the energy and focus that leadership provides," Bartosz said. "We, again, humbly suggest that come from Gov. Whitmer and permeate this system from the top right down to the front doors of family homes where social workers do their jobs. Absent that kind of leadership, we're bound to drift."

Giovanatti countered, arguing the state has cooperated with monitors and Children's Rights to make significant reforms. 

"Gov. Whitmer and the department, of course, prioritize child welfare and specifically the safety of children in the foster care system," Giovanatti said. "To suggest otherwise is frankly completely baseless, your honor." 

State officials told Edmunds they hope to be out of court oversight by the end of this year. 

"Over the next six months, we do intend to make additional progress to show the court our self-reliance and our commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of children under our care," Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said. "This includes continuing our work with the monitors, Children's Rights and the courts to facilitate this timely and successful exit."

Edmunds asked the state to create a small team to work with monitors to develop a corrective action plan and report back to her every 90 days.

"Let's bring this to the finish line and get it done," the judge said. "Our foster children deserve all the attention we can give them."