State poised to improve child welfare system as a result of new federal court agreement

Last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy G. Edmunds, Eastern District of Michigan, approved a new agreement between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Children’s Rights, the advocacy group that sued the state 13 years ago. Taking the place of an earlier deal approved in federal court in 2016, the Modified Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan reflects a slate of changes that MDHHS sought.

Examples include eliminating the state’s time-consuming compliance reviews of cases as much as two years old, focusing efforts to prevent child maltreatment on the activities most directly related to stopping it, and shifting efforts for older youth from documenting planning activities to getting youth into effective programs, such as the Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care program.

“This new agreement allows Michigan to devote less resources to compliance and more resources to getting results,” said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon. “Because of the new agreement, we can better use data in real time to improve. We can better prevent maltreatment of children who are placed by the state. We can better support older youth so they can build the futures they deserve.”

Edmunds praised the agreement before signing it. “This is a huge step forward,” she said. “I am delighted to be able to sign the new (Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan).”

Last Thursday’s appearance in court was the first for JooYeun Chang, who became executive director of the MDHHS Children’s Services Agency in May and along with Gordon will lead child welfare system reform efforts for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Chang has spent time during her early weeks on the job talking to Children’s Services Agency staff, families, youth and partner agencies that work with MDHHS. “Two things are clear,” she said.

“One, there is much work to do to improve safety and well-being outcomes for children in our care. Two, we have a workforce, made up of public and private agency staff, who are deeply committed to serving children and families and want to do their best in a tough, sometimes dangerous, and often thankless job.”

Chang previously worked in leadership roles for Casey Family Programs, the largest child welfare-focused foundation in the country, and at the federal Children’s Bureau, a federal agency organized under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

Chang updated the court on areas that Edmunds asked MDHHS to focus on during the March court appearance. “What I think we must do in the near term is focus our energy on the most fundamental task for a child welfare agency – keep children who come to our attention safe,” she said.

Since March, she said MDHHS has made improvements that have included:

• Changing policy so relative foster care providers get the same financial support as non-relative foster parents. Under the new agreement, MDHHS retains its commitment to ensuring safety at the time children are placed in care and each year thereafter, but licensing relative caregivers is no longer required.

• Ensuring all children in care have a safe sleep environment.

• Placing greater emphasis on preventing maltreatment of children in foster care through a specialized collaboration unit.

• Partnering with the University of Michigan to identify root causes of maltreatment of children in care and adopt strategies to prevent it.

While emphasizing the significant progress in the agreement, Gordon also noted that some changes the state sought were not included. He focused on the large number of goals that remain in the agreement and the resulting compliance burden that risks distracting attention from the most critical child outcomes.

At the March hearing, Edmunds asked MDHHS to return to court in June with a decision on whether to replace or make incremental changes to the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System. The system, used by staff to manage cases and to track child welfare data, was custom-built for the state, with a cost of more than $200 million for creation, implementation, enhancements and ongoing maintenance. To address that issue, MDHHS has been working with a team of consultants who have successful track records of fixing technology systems at the federal and state levels.

That team has recommended that the state replace the current system with a phased implementation based upon a Platform-as-a-Service, which would rely at its foundation on technology that is kept in working order for numerous clients. The modular approach is consistent with modern best practice for technology development, and the reliance on Platform-as-a-Service will increase the reliability of the system while reducing costs for development and operations. As a next step, MDHHS will begin the process of developing a request for proposals to deploy the new system.

To view the new agreement, visit www.michigan.gov/ChildWelfareAgreement.

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