No one who remembers 7-year-old Leo Ratte's ordeal at the hands of Michigan's Department of Human Services last spring will be surprised by a national child advocacy group's conclusion that DHS has become too quick to seize children from loving homes on flimsy evidence of abuse. The Ratte family's case remains a potent symbol of the need to put more emphasis on helping parents and children, not separating them.
Little Leo was placed in foster care after his father inadvertently bought Leo a lemonade spiked with alcohol at Comerica Park. Leo was separated from his parents for several days, and his father was banished from his family's home in Ann Arbor for more than a week before child protective workers concluded that Leo's exposure to hard lemonade had been an innocent mistake.
DHS called Leo's experience an anomaly, but a new report by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform concludes DHS removes other children from their homes on similarly dubious grounds and diverts money to expensive foster care and group homes that could be better spent helping families overcome temporary difficulties.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria-based coalition, says Michigan's child protection bureaucracy suffers from a "take-the-child-and-run mentality" that treats parents who lose their jobs or fail to pay their utility bills the same as those who abuse drugs or physically harm their children. He says new regulations requiring extended family members to meet the same regulations as licensed foster care could disqualify many grandparents. Even the home in which Barack Obama was raised by his grandmother couldn't have met the requirements, Wexler contends.
DHS says it has reduced the number of children in foster care, and its policy in all cases is to err on the side of children's safety. Wexler counters that many states manage both to separate proportionally fewer families and to have a better record of protecting children.
The coalition's report was released as a task force of Michigan legislators, nonprofit organizations and concerned citizens is mulling options for overhaul of the state's child protection bureaucracy. The task force should be encouraged by the report's conclusion that providing in-home assistance to impoverished families is both less expensive and more effective than foster care at keeping at-risk children safe.
"The great paradox of child welfare," Wexler asserts, "is that the options that are best for kids tend to cost the least." Both factors counsel in favor of Michigan doing all it can to help troubled families in place before it takes the draconian and expensive step of splitting them up.