Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan is closer to shrugging off federal oversight of its child welfare program, after a U.S. district court judge eliminated or reduced many of the requirements it must meet in order to do so.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the state’s child welfare program, attributed the order to the “tremendous progress” the department had made in keeping children in its care safe, including decreasing the number of kids placed in congregate care facilities and decreasing the overall number of children in foster care.

“We can really narrow our focus now on a couple of key issues and I think we’re really ready to do that moving forward and be really successful,” said MDHHS director Elizabeth Hertel.

More than 15 years of federal oversight

Michigan’s child welfare program has been monitored for over 15 years as the result of a lawsuit brought by advocacy and accountability organization Children’s Rights, which sued the state on behalf of children in its care. The suit alleged maltreatment or neglect of children in state custody, a lack of basic medical and mental health services for children in foster care, frequent moves between foster care placements and excessive lengths of stay in the child welfare system.

In a 2008 settlement, Michigan agreed to meet scores of requirements that would improve child safety and well-being before it could operate independently once more.

The court approved an improvement plan in 2016, which was modified three years later.

The new court order signed by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds eliminates 31 provisions and drops the number of provisions subject to ongoing court monitoring to 23. MDHHS must continue to maintain progress on an additional 20 requirements that are no longer subject to monitoring.

“Scaling back the overall number of reporting items will be helpful in freeing up more time and more resources to work directly with children and families, which, of course, is good for our communities,” said Janet Reynolds Snyder, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families.

‘Tremendous momentum’ and a shift toward prevention

A DHHS statement pointed out myriad improvements the state has made since the original court agreement, including reducing the number of children in foster care from more than 19,000 in 2008 to just over 9,300 today.

Reynolds Snyder said she’d continued to notice a cultural shift toward becoming a more equitable and prevention-focused system that emphasizes keeping families together in the community and ensuring child safety and well-being. “There’s tremendous momentum in those areas,” she said.

Children are being placed with licensed relatives or in foster care homes with much greater frequency, DHHS also said. When the state settled the lawsuit, more than 1,200 children were living in congregate care facilities. Today, that is down to approximately 350.

“Looking at different ways to keep kids safe in their communities and making sure we wrap services around the families in their homes to keep kids out of those congregate care facilities has really been a focus of ours over the last couple of years,” said Demetrius Starling, senior deputy director of MDHHS’s children’s services administration.

Kids in care have better access to face-to-face visits, according to Joe Ryan, professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Child and Adolescent Data Lab at the University of Michigan.

Ryan attributed the positive change to DHHS’s strategic collaborations, commitment to data-driven decision-making and regular consultation with federal monitors.

The state has established a centralized intake unit for reports of child abuse and neglect, and Children’s Protective Services investigators and licensing workers have reduced their caseloads.

The most recent monitoring report, released in December, showed DHHS was exceeding expectations on several child safety measures, including beginning 98% of abuse or neglect investigations in a timely fashion, achieving caseload standards for CPS investigators and completing 94% of investigations within a set time frame.

Taking action to keep kids safe

Michigan’s child welfare system will be released from monitoring once it has met all the performance requirements of the settlement agreement and maintained that performance for 18 months.

Progress to date will enable DHHS to double down on implementing remaining items in its Keep Kids Safe Action Agenda, a best-practice guide the agency says will put Michigan at the forefront of child welfare and continue emphasizing prevention.

“We want to make sure that kids are finding stability in placements and permanency in families,” Hertel said.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Starling said the agency would continue dialogue with families and communities about how best to prevent the maltreatment of kids in care.

Reynolds Snyder said a continued focus on trying to achieve permanent placements for kids within 12 months of entering foster care remained an important priority for the child welfare community.

More: Juvenile justice reforms are passing after task force’s ‘monumental’ two-year effort

Solving the real problems in child welfare

Some barriers to progress persist, including a shortage of foster care families. Older children, sibling groups and kids with special needs have a particularly hard time finding lasting homes and families.

Families who do take in these children need enhanced support, said Starling. But he said they’re beginning to get it. The state has made historic increases in the financial support provided to foster families; they received an 8% rate increase this fiscal year and a 20% increase last fiscal year. And the introduction of Family Impact Teams has provided community-based wraparound services to more than 500 families whose children are at risk of neglect.

This kind of support can prevent children from being separated from their families for neglect when the true problem is rooted in poverty.

‘All gas, no brakes’

Reynolds Snyder, whose organization keeps tabs on the state budget as it pertains to child welfare, said the state had signaled its commitment to continuing progress in meeting the court agreement’s outstanding requirements. Hertel agreed that the financial support was there. “I do think we have significant investment that we can work with,” she said.

But she also said reforms to the state’s child welfare system could not and should not be hurried.

“We cannot rush our way through making changes that are important to keep children safe in our state,” she said. “Whatever that time is that is necessary to do that, that’s the time that it will take.”

DHHS administrators, on the other hand, suggested speed was both desirable and possible.

Starling called it an “all gas, no brakes kind of approach.”

“I expect to see fast implementation and improvements,” Hertel said. “I want to see it as fast as possible because I know we have the tools and I know we have the dedicated people to do this and make a difference. And I’m really excited about where we’re headed.”

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Reach her at jbrookland@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan DHHS makes progress on reforming its child welfare system

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