Background: The Lawsuit
In 2006, 19,000 abused and neglected children in the custody of Michigan’s Department of Human Services (DHS) were the subject of a federal class action suit (Michigan Settles, 2008). The state of Michigan was being held accountable for the administrative and organizational structure of their Department of Human Services. A national advocacy group from New York, Children’s Rights, Inc., filed a federal class action suit against the state of Michigan on behalf of the children in DHS custody in order to seek foster care reform (Michigan Settles, 2008). The MI Department of Human Services (DHS) administers several programs and services. Among the programs DHS offers it provides food assistance, state disability, emergency relief, and also oversees the Family Independence Program (FIP) which manages foster care and adoptive services. Therefore, the court case entitled Dwayne B. v. Granholm (2006) claimed that DHS suffered from a shortage of available foster placements, a high number of caseloads, inadequate monitoring of child safety in placements, ineffective procedures for planning the movement of children from foster care, and low payment rates for foster care services (Fosdick, 2008). Children Rights, Inc. alleged that the state violated constitutional, federal statutory, and federal common law rights of children in foster care by failing in several measures (Fosdick, 2008). By and large, Children Rights, Inc. filed this suit to ensure the quality of care for the children within the state’s foster care system. The advocacy group found that the Department failed to supply the children with adequate medical related services, provide satisfactory foster homes, and was unable to prepare the soon to be aged out children to live independently as adults (Fosdick, 2008). As a result, proceedings occurred for 2 years, in which the number of caseloads were found to be a major reoccurring theme for the Department’s deficiencies.
On October 24, 2008, a settlement was approved mandating reform and federal court oversight of Michigan’s foster care system (Michigan Settles, 2008). The settlement issued several requirements for Michigan’s DHS system. First, it required the establishment of a Children’s Services Administration. This Administration would provide protection, treatment, and services to children in state custody and those who have been reported for abuse or neglect, moving more than 6,000 children to safe, permanent homes (Michigan Settles, 2008). According to the class action suit, Michigan’s DHS was also obligated to improve investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect and, in doing so, improve the children’s safety. Most importantly, DHS should consider fixing their organizational problems and provide better training for caseworkers so that a reduction in caseloads would result (Michigan Settles, 2008). If these conditions were met, the state’s DHS would achieve a more effective statewide system for foster care (Michigan Settles, 2008). In order to track this reform, the state’s progress was also supervised by an appointed monitor who reported to the federal court each year (Michigan Settles, 2008). These “court appointed monitor reports” made several recommendations and also highlighted the changes DHS made as time elapsed.
Initial Policy Predictions
The state legislature’s Senate Fiscal Agency established some initial policy predictions about the Department’s functionality and inferred about their current status, the proposed changes, and the likelihood of the legislature to coordinate such implementation (Fosdick, 2008). The settlement agreement between then Governor Jennifer Granholm and Children's Rights, Inc. expected to drive major policy decisions related to children's services- post 2008. Since the class action suit mandated changes to the state Department’s organization and a new focus on children's services, in late 2008, the Senate Fiscal Agency predicted that state expenditures were likely to increase for children's services by approximately millions of dollars over the next four years (Fosdick, 2008). The driving factor of the court case was the amount and quality of DHS caseworkers. By December 2010, the ratio of DHS caseworkers to cases was about 40-to-1; as of 2011, the caseload is about 20- or 25-to-1 (Associated Press, 2011). The overall goal was to obtain a ratio of 15-to-1 so that the new administration was on the right track. That same year, over 720 DHS caseworkers were hired (Associated Press, 2011). The additional caseworkers were the product of Governor Rick Snyder. Governor Snyder complied with the 2008 settlement and made it a priority to improve child welfare services in the state of Michigan. The Senate Fiscal Agency was correct in its predictions for hiring new caseworkers in order to conform to the settlement’s guidelines for the state.
Case Study # 1: The Child Welfare Resource Center
After the settlement, the Child Welfare Resource Center from Michigan State University’s School of Social Work also considered the efficiency of the interworking’s of Michigan’s Department of Human Services by conducting a case study in 2009. The case study established several findings. They found that there were systemic barriers in place that unfavorably impacted Michigan’s ability to deliver their services to children and families (Child Resource Center, 2009). These barriers directly referred to the quality of service(s) delivered to the children in question. Overall, organization, adequate healthcare, prevention and preservation services, customized approaches which lead to permanency, post permanency and youth transition services, and multidimensional assessments were identified as areas in need of improvement (Child Resource Center, 2009). Similar to the settlement recommendations, the Child Resource Center at MSU found that serious structural changes to the foundation of the Department, coupled with quality care and support for the foster care children and prospective families, were essential components to fix in order for the Michigan Department of Humans Services to thrive.
Court Appointed Monitor Reports
In addition, the court appointed monitor reports were unveiled annually. These reports helped track the progress of DHS’ reform and gave the Department an opportunity to showcase their improvements as well. In 2012, the third report was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, covering July 1-Dec. 31, 2012 (Report Shows Improvements, 2013). This report showed that the agency not only met, but exceeded caseload standards and also credited the Department with their timely health and dental exams (Report Shows Improvements, 2013). Five years later, Michigan’s DHS remained committed to the reform of protect kids from abuse and neglect.
More recently, the 2013 Court Appointed Monitor Report was released, which covered the period that occurred approximately one year ago, from Jan. 1- June 30, 2013 (DHS – Submitted, 2014). Such positive outcomes included new staff qualifications and training, the number of caseloads in the system, post adoption services and support for children and families, centralized intake, and the guardianship of children (DHS – Submitted, 2014). DHS also emphasized their overall progress as well by citing their caseload-ratio compliance, increased adoption rates, timeliness and permanency, placement stability, and new worker/in-service training (DHS – Submitted, 2014). According to the court appointed monitor reports from 2012-2013, there has been significant reform to DHS’ child welfare system. In turn, foster care cases were and are continuing to decline, one product of the reform.
Case Study #2: The Urban Institute
Moreover, there were also case studies that analyzed similar factors about DHS and made their own determinations accordingly. The Urban Institute conducted their own case study with the same subject matter. The Urban Institute is a nonpartisan research organization located in Washington, D.C. with a mission to collect data, perform evaluations, and partake in effective research of social and economic issues (About the Urban Institute, 2014). The Urban Institute’s study found no evidence to suggest that welfare reform had significantly increased the number of families referred to child welfare agencies (Geen et al., 2014). While case study respondents agreed that welfare reform had not significantly affected child welfare caseloads, they identified a variety of smaller effects they have seen on families and offered descriptions as to why greater effects have not yet been observed but may be seen in the near future (Geen et al., 2014). Therefore, the Urban Institute found little change in how the reform had effected caseloads and the quality of care within the state’s foster care system.
How Did the Economy Reflect These Changes?
The Department of Human Services budget signed by the Governor for the year beginning Oct. 1 further reduced total funding by 4.8%, from $6.05 billion to $5.76 billion (MLPP, 2014). The motivating factor of this change was the unprecedented decline in the number of families with children able to access income assistance through the state’s Family Independence Program (MLPP, 2014). What does this mean? These results showed that funding was reduced due to the decline in caseloads. Furthermore, Michigan's unemployment rate dropped from 10.9 percent in 2011 to 7.4 percent in April, meaning some families may be taking a step up after receiving a helping hand (MLPP, 2014). This also exemplified another underlying reason, a lower unemployment rate, for the funding decrease as well as the reduction of families who previously participated in the welfare system. However, MLPP President and CEO Gilda Jacobs did not look at these recent statistics in this way. President Jacobs claimed that, “sadly, research shows that children who are born poor and live in persistently poor families are more likely to have health problems, suffer from learning and other disabilities, drop out of high school, have babies as teens, and ultimately have trouble finding consistent employment as adults.” Jacobs also contended, “The effects of persistent poverty can be long-lasting, and could derail Michigan's attempts to improve educational achievement and fuel economic growth.” (Oosting, 2014).
The Aftermath of the Lawsuit
Based on the court appointed monitor reports and the case studies, it was evident that the reaction to the amount of changes within the Department of Humans Services in the state of Michigan were mixed. The settlement recommendations demanded changes to the DHS caseload and overall care of the children in custody. It generated media attention, addressed fundamental organizational issues, and propelled reform. By looking at the yearly court appointed monitor reports-post settlement-as well as two other case studies on the topic, it was clear that initial action was taken to improve the organization and the quality of care of the abused and neglected children, but there were varied feelings about how much was changed and if enough had been done as well. Consequently, this alluded to the length of time it takes to make bureaucratic and structural changes within a state government or agency. As a result, the timing posed a challenge for the Department, making it difficult to fully implement and overhaul their foster care system. Although there have been some modifications made, the Department is still working to successfully prove itself and the demands set forth by the court. The continuation of case studies and the evaluation of the Department’s performance will help develop a more cohesive understanding of the Michigan Department of Humans Services’ foster care reform and the caseload changes associated to it.
Opinions are split on the progress of the reform. Some have seen the improvements DHS has made, while others do not believe in the small positive outcomes that have been reported. As of 2012, 25 percent of children were still living in households with an income below the federal poverty level (Oosting, 2014). Despite the varied analyses, the goal remains the same-the improvement and well-being of the children within DHS custody. Further examination of the reform as well as time is needed in order to provide a more thorough understanding about the impact of the reform on caseloads and the true nature of the Michigan Department of Human Services’ administrative structure.
"About the Urban Institute." The Urban Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2014. <.">http://www.urban.org/about/>.
Associated Press. "Gov. Snyder swears in hundreds of child welfare workers." MLive.com. N.p., 23 May 2011. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2011/05/gov_snyder_swears_in_hundreds.html
Child Welfare Resource Center-School of Social Work-Michigan State University. "Michigan Child Welfare Needs Assessment-Final Report " Michigan Department of Human Services-Child Welfare Services. N.p., 19 May 2009. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <.">https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dhs/DHS-Reform-NeedsAssessment-May2009_286640_7.pdf>.
"DHS - Submitted to Federal Court: Fourth Report Measuring State's Progress under Child Welfare Settlement." State of Michigan, 10 March 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.michigan.gov/dhs/0,4562,7-124--323422--,00.html>.
Fosdick, David. "How the Children's Rights Settlement Will Affect the State of Michigan." State Notes: Topics of Legislative Interest. Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <">http://www.senate.michigan.gov/sfa/publcations%5Cnotes%5C2008notes%5Cnotessepoct08df.pdf.>
Geen, Rob, Lynne Fender, Jacob Leos-Urbel, and Teresa Markowitz. "Welfare Reform's Effect on Child Welfare Caseloads." Welfare Reform's Effect on Child Welfare Caseloads. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <">http://www.urban.org/publications/310095.html.>
Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP)." Human Services Budget Reflects Continuing Steep Caseload Declines. N.p., 11 July 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <.">http://www.mlpp.org/human-services-budget-reflects-continuing-steep-caseload-declines>.
"Michigan Settles Reform Lawsuit, Agrees to Overhaul of Failing Child Welfare System." Children’s Rights RSS. N.p., 3 July 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <.">http://www.childrensrights.org/news-events/press/michigan-settles-reform-lawsuit/>.
Oosting, Jonathon. "Big drop in Michigan welfare cases means big savings, but at what cost to the poor?" MLive.com. N.p., 15 June 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2014/06/dramatic_drop_in_michigan_welf.html.
"Report Shows Improvements In Mich. Child Welfare - CBS Detroit." CBS Detroit. Associated Press, 12 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <.">http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2013/10/12/report-shows-improvements-in-mich-child-welfare/>..