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By Robin Erb
February 18, 2009 / Free Press.com
Michigan’s child welfare system needlessly rips children from their parents and its bureaucracy keeps those families apart, according to a report released this morning by a nationally known advocate for child welfare reform.
In the worst cases, children die in foster care when they should never have been taken from their parents in the first place, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR).
“The more you take children needlessly away from their families … the more you overload the system. And the more you overload the system, the more mistakes caseworkers are going to make,” Wexler said Tuesday in a meeting with the Free Press editorial board in advance of the report's release.
The Michigan Department of Human Services released a statement saying it will not compromise the safety of Michigan’s children while it continues to make improvements to the system.
The department works to maintain the connections between children and their families, but also must weigh that against ensuring the safety of those children. “If we err, it will be on the side of protecting children,” the statement read.
Released today, NCCPR’s 81-page report “Cycle of Failure” intertwines case histories in several Michigan cases with national data and other reports to underscore what Wexler has repeatedly called the “take-the-child-and-run” mentality of child welfare systems.The report also contends that Michigan's child welfare system is tainted by bias against African Americans and poor families and is overwhelmed by the number of cases.
Bureaucratic inertia, the way the system is funded, a lack of time and fear of mistakes -- the combination means caseworkers more often resort to removing a child rather than working at keeping families intact, Wexler said.
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Moreover, cumbersome licensing requirements prevent children from being placed with grandparents, the common-sense placement for children who have been taken from their parents, Wexler said.
Michigan’s Department of Human Services is undergoing major reforms. A settlement last year in a federal lawsuit filed by New York-based Children’s Rights mandated that DHS lower its worker caseload and put in place programs to move children more quickly toward permanency -- through reunification with their own families, placement with relatives or adoption.
It also puts in place a court monitor who will oversee the changes, and a task force of nonprofit groups, legislators, former foster youth and parents is putting together its recommendations on how to go about the overhaul.
Wexler’s will be among many voices who may contribute to the task force’s final recommendations.
The Michigan Department of Human Services must weigh reunification with families against ensuring the safety of Michigan’s children, said Kathryne O’Grady, deputy director for children services.
Plus, as the department continues to hire more caseworkers, it’s reducing their caseloads, and fewer children are in foster care today -- 17,388 compared to in 2004 when the numbers topped 19,000, she said.
Carol Goss, of the Skillman Foundation, co-chairs that task force, and Skillman helped fund Wexler’s review of the Michigan system. Skillman officials did not immediately comment on the report.