Reforms coming to state foster care system
October 7, 2008
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
A federal judge today approved a massive settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of 19,000 Michigan foster children.
In a few days, the settlement will be signed, bringing broad reforms for a state system described by the children’s attorneys as “missing its mark far too often.”
The settlement comes after nearly two years of heated negotiations between the Michigan Department of Human Services, which oversees the nation’s seventh largest foster care system, and Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group that filed the class action lawsuit, saying the state did not keep its wards “free from harm.” The sides were set to go to trial on July 7, when an eleventh-hour settlement was reached.
“It goes about as far as it could possibly go, and it is my pleasure to approve it,” said U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who praised both sides for preventing a prolonged and costly trial.
The reforms will spread throughout the agency and its private partners over a five year span ending in 2013, from hiring more case workers to ensuring basic mental and physical health care for state wards. In a rare move, DHS will hire a medical director to in part oversee what many believe is overuse of behavioral and psychotropic medications in the foster care system.
The lead plaintiff, Dwayne B., now age nine, was on multiple psychotropic drugs to stabilize his mood and behavior, which the lawsuit said became worse with each of eight moves while in the system. He is still awaiting adoption.
The lawsuit emphasizes “permanency,” be it reunification with birth parents, or severing of parental rights and a push for adoption. Of the 19,000 children in the system, 6,000 are ready for adoption and 7,000 live with family that isn’t registered for benefits with the state.
“It’s a large system, and the degree of chaos was extraordinary,” said Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. She said lawsuits such as theirs serve an “unfortunate” accountability function for states that do not uphold children’s rights.
Lead children’s attorney Sara Bartosz referenced the deaths of three children in Michigan’s foster care system as a catalyst for the lawsuit. The Free Press examined the 2006 deaths of Allison Newman, age 2, and Isaac Lethbridge, age 2, who were killed while in separate foster homes, and Ricky Holland, age 7, killed in 2005 by his foster-adoptive parents. The Free Press revealed numerous missteps by DHS, among others, that led to his death.
The state’s immediate concern is getting eligible children adopted, said DHS Deputy Director Kathryne O’Grady. Some have been cleared for a year or more, and they are looking for adoptive families. She said they are already addressing hiring issues and have asked the state Legislature for about $50 million to scrutinize their current needs and to begin implementing the program in 2009.
The reforms will be monitored by the four-member Public Catalyst Group, who helped overhaul the New Jersey foster care system after a similar lawsuit.