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$400 prom dress, in shades of gray

The headlines practically write themselves.

"Taxpayers on the hook for $400 prom dress."

"$2,000 cheerleading camp on the state tab."

Scrape away the easy sensationalism, and the story is more complex.

The Michigan Department of Human Services paid almost $400 for a prom dress for a foster care teen -- one of several eye-popping expenditures noted in an audit of the state’s teen foster care program (called Youth In Transition).

The report, released Friday by the Auditor General’s Office, found that 30 percent of expenditures in cases examined either “exceeded dollar limitations” or “appeared potentially excessive in nature.”

Youth In Transition is a teen foster care program designed to help transition foster care youths to self-dependency. Generally, foster care youths between ages 14 to 21 are in the program.

The audit, which covered expenditures from October 2008 to May 2011, revealed examples of, what without context, appear to be questionable items paid for by taxpayers:

* $600 for prom attire for one youth, including a $395 prom dress.

* More than $2,000 for a cheerleading camp for one youth.

* More than $2,000 for hockey equipment and ice time for another.

* More than $5,000 for voice lessons and summer camp for a youth.

DHS does not have a dollar limit on expenditures for extracurricular activities.
The audit also found cases in which DHS paid for iPods as graduation gifts, and cases in which taxpayers paid for senior trips and even a traffic ticket. DHS policy is not supposed to allow payments for gifts or traffic fines, according to the audit report.

In a written response to the audit report, DHS officials said the department was in general agreement with the findings and that steps were being take to correct the problem.

But Mary Chaliman, director of the Permanency Department of the DHS Child Welfare Division, cautioned against taking any of those examples out of the context of individual foster care cases.

“I’ve been a caseworker, and I’ve advocated for purchases that were a little higher,’ she said. “It’s individualized. If you have a kid for whom this is going to make a difference in their lives, if this is going to make a difference in their self esteem, … sometimes you take a gamble. A lot of our kids come from traumatic backgrounds. They switch schools a million times. To be asked to the senior prom is a huge event in their lives.”

Chaliman pointed out that most expenditures for foster children are modest -  maybe $80 for soccer equipment. But “if you have a kid who shows real promise (at hockey), that this is their passion and it may be their ticket to a college scholarship, sometimes you take that chance.”

These are kids who've been beaten up by life, Chaliman said. She hopes they don't get beaten up again by those looking to score cheap political points.

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