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Opinion | Judges can — and must — solve Michigan’s child placement crisis

Amid all the concern over children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems forced to endure makeshift placements — some even shipped more than a thousand miles away — Michigan has lost sight of the real causes of the problem. As a result, everyone from the state’s probate judges to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pursue solutions that will make things worse.

Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,

At the root of the placement crisis is the fact that Michigan tears apart so many families needlessly. The typical cases seen by DHHS caseworkers are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which poverty is confused with neglect. In Michigan, 17 percent of children were thrown into foster care because their parents lacked adequate housing — that’s more than were taken because of physical abuse. 

The problem is compounded by racial bias. Black and multi-racial children are trapped in Michigan foster care at double their rate in the general population — a record of racial disparity even worse than the national average.

Get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few who really need them.

The people in the best position to stop the child removal juggernaut are judges. Federal law requires that states make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together. But a survey of Michigan judges revealed that they routinely fail to hold DHHS to that standard. The survey found that 20 percent of the judges said they always concluded that reasonable efforts had been made – in other words, DHHS was perfect. Another 70 percent percent said they rarely concluded otherwise.  Even more significant: 40 percent of judges admitted that they lied and said DHHS made “reasonable efforts” in cases where the judges really didn’t believe it. In half those cases, the judges admitted they lied because, if they didn’t, the state would not get federal aid for holding the child in foster care, and the county would have to pick up the extra costs.

In Detroit, orders to tear apart families were issued by probation officers who literally rubber-stamped judges’ names on them — until news accounts exposed the practice.

But instead of cleaning up their own act, judges now are demanding that the state institutionalize more children — the worst option of all.

So-called residential treatment has always failed, as one scandal after another, after another and a pile of rigorous research makes clear. The model is based on the idea that if you put young people who supposedly have the worst behavior problems all in one place right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure, they will get better.

The residential treatment industry tells us for some youth, supposedly, nothing else works.  After all, they say, these young people have, to use the industry’s own offensive term, blown out of foster homes.  But that’s because Michigan has failed to provide the intensive help children’s own families or foster families need.

There is nothing residential treatment does that can’t be done better, at lower cost, with wraparound programs, in which everything a family or foster family needs is brought right into the home. In one video, wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis explains how wraparound kept safely at home a youth so difficult even the local jail couldn’t handle him. 

But DHHS proposes to pour millions more into institutions — even doubling payments to places that already typically charge hundreds of dollars per day per child.  The state would get far more bang for those bucks by simply giving them to parents to buy the in-home help they need.

If the state’s judges really want to solve this problem, they could start doing their jobs, instead of rubber-stamping every DHHS request to tear an impoverished child from her or his family.

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