Michigan gets flexibility in helping troubled foster kids

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- The state of Michigan was granted more flexibility Monday to meet a court-ordered mandate that it improve conditions for children needing foster care and protective services.

Just seven months ago, a New York-based group called Children's Rights was threatening to ask a judge to put the Department of Human Services in receivership after then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration had repeatedly failed to meet the terms of a 2008 agreement.

But there were no threats or tough talk Monday as Children's Rights and a court-appointed monitor heaped praise on new Gov. Rick Snyder and Human Services chief Maura Corrigan.

"The promises made are going to be promises kept. A lot of exciting things are happening," said Sara Bartosz, an attorney with Children's Rights, whose 2006 lawsuit forced the state to make changes.

Two years later, the state settled the case and agreed to many policies, including hundreds of new hires to reduce caseloads in foster care and protective services.

But compliance has been a challenge, especially after 1,300 workers quit or took early retirement in 2010. Since then, the state has hired more than 800 people, many of them new college graduates.

The new agreement extends the deadlines to reduce caseloads for each worker. Ninety-five percent of foster care workers, for example, shall have no more than 15 cases each by October 2013. Neglect workers shall have no more than 12 open investigations by the end of 2013.

There also are strict deadlines for medical and dental assessments for each child.

People promoted to supervisor had been required to have a master's degree. That policy has been scratched after the department said it was a barrier to picking people with great skills.

Corrigan, noting that "data drives everything," said a new computer system is in the works for fall 2012. She said the state also has lined up adoptive parents for 3,100 children seeking a permanent home.

"Fabulous," U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds replied.

There still are nearly 15,000 Michigan children in foster care. Assistant Attorney General Joseph Potchen told the judge that future changes "are still massive."

Indeed, court-appointed monitor Kevin Ryan, the former head of New Jersey's child-welfare agency, said the "arc of reform remains very ambitious." But he was much more optimistic than last December when he said the Human Services Department under Granholm had a "basic math problem" just trying to determine how many kids were entering and leaving the system.

Outside court, Bartosz said she has met Snyder, a former computer executive, at least twice to discuss the effort to improve child-welfare services.

"He wants to operate government like a business that must meet targets. ... We've seen a team with fire in its belly," Bartosz told The Associated Press.

Published: Wed, Jul 20, 2011