Michigan still struggles with child abuse and neglect

Michigan still struggles with child abuse and neglect

Michigan still struggles with child abuse and neglect

While Michigan has improved in its handling of child welfare for those in foster care, the state still has much work to do, according to a semiannual report from federal court monitors.

Judge Nancy Edmunds of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Tuesday praised the “tremendous progress” the state has made in improving child welfare for foster children, according to a news release from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. In January, Edmunds narrowed the number of focus areas for the state, allowing it to stop monitoring in 33 areas and move to structural and policy monitoring in 11 areas.

But while Edmunds praised the state, it met or exceeded performance requirements in only six of 28 areas monitored for compliance, according to the latest report compiled by federal watchdogs that was released Tuesday. The report is part of a 2008 consent decree that arose from a lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights, a group that said foster children were not being kept safe in Michigan.

The state has gone through several exit plans, but 16 years later, it remains under federal supervision.

The most recent report covers the first six months of 2023. Supervisors noted improvements in the state’s progress in sending older teens from foster care back to their parents, into adoptions or guardianships; keeping adoption workers’ workloads to no more than 15 children; and not separating siblings in foster care. The state is still not meeting its goals in these areas, but this is the first time there has been improvement.

“The Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) remains committed to keeping families together safely,” MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. “I am proud of the work we do and the progress we have made as we continue to work toward excellence in our child welfare system. We remain focused on the remaining requirements of the agreement.”

Demetrius Starling, senior deputy director of MDHHS’s Administration for Children’s Services, said the state continues to follow its Keeping Children Safe Action Agenda, the plan it has put in place to improve its handling of child welfare issues.

“Working with law enforcement, judges, legislators and other partners, we will not be satisfied until Michigan is the best place in America to raise children and start families,” Starling said in a statement.

The state continues to struggle with documenting and obtaining parental consent for the use of psychotropic medications, ensuring that workers visit parents, ensuring that parents and their children can visit each other twice a month, and ensuring that residential care homes comply with corrective action plans after the state determines there is a problem with how they are treating children. About 66% of children whose family goal is to be reunited with their parents had twice-monthly visits with their parents, even though the goal is 85%.

Another area where the state needs major improvements is in handling investigations into abuse, neglect and inadequate supervision in foster care.

According to the report, judicial monitors were unable to review the state’s performance in handling these investigations. That’s because 32 percent of the 120 foster care abuse or neglect investigations the monitors reviewed were deficient, including 32 investigations in which not enough information had been gathered to reach a conclusion and six investigations that should have been substantiated as abuse or neglect but were not.

According to the report, there were 437 children involved in 459 incidents of abuse or neglect. The victimization rate was 14.5 victimizations per 100,000 days in foster care, but the federal target is less than 9.07 victimizations per 100,000 days in foster care. Michigan’s victimization rate has “steadily increased” over the past three fiscal years, rising from 5.55 in 2021 to 8.04 in 2022.

Until this goal is met, the state must produce an independent report analyzing data on foster care abuse. The 2023 report found that abuse and neglect were most likely to occur in child care institutions (including group homes, residential treatment centers, detention centers, and residential facilities) and with kinship foster parents. In most cases, this was due to inadequate supervision.

For kinship foster homes, the most significant problems were unauthorized visits by birth parents and alcohol and drug use, often by birth parents, who were not allowed to be with their children unsupervised. For unrelated foster parents, physical abuse was the most common.

Child Protective Services failed to investigate several cases of foster care abuse reported to them, including a boy with broken glasses held together with string and tape for months whose nose was cut off by the glasses; a girl who repeatedly reported feeling unsafe in a residential home and being pushed and elbowed by staff; a staff member who left an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old unsupervised outside and one forced the other to perform oral sex; and a staff member who put his hands around a 9-year-old boy’s neck and pulled him away from a water fountain.

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General found that Michigan is among 16 states that are unable to identify multiple incidents of abuse within a facility or across chains of facilities. The OIG found that these states did not have the information needed to identify these patterns in residential facilities. States are not required to collect this information, the study said, but the inability to identify patterns hampers their ability to fix systemic problems.

Court monitors also found that the state was failing to adequately follow up on corrective action plans established after a child care facility was found to have violated policies or abused, neglected or improperly supervised a child.

The implementation of these plans was often late, ineffective, poor or non-existent, lacked specificity, clarity and substance and did not remedy the risks to children, according to the court observers’ report.

Despite the plans, serious violations continued to occur frequently, including use of physical force, inappropriate restraints causing injury, ineffective interventions for suicidal youth, and inadequate supervision, often by the same staff members.

“In numerous cases, there was no evidence that previous CAPs had been reviewed and updated for repeated violations of child safety standards, even after identified risks to child safety persisted,” the report said. “Often, CAP verification consisted only of interviews with staff, rather than a review of documentation to ensure that CAP provisions were actually being implemented.”

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