The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is still struggling to meet the vast majority of goals set under a federal consent decree, including having enough foster homes for children in the state and keeping siblings together after they’ve been removed from their homes, according to a biannual review by court monitors.
The monitors also found the state still has issues with properly investigating abuse or neglect in foster care.
The Michigan department has been under federal court oversight as a part of a settlement of a 2006 class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of children whose attorneys argued were mistreated in state care. Children’s Rights, the New York-based advocacy agency that filed the lawsuit, and the state entered into a new agreement in June 2019 that relaxed some oversight measures by amending the requirements the state must meet for creating assessments, service plans and provisions of services.
The latest monitoring report, which covers July to December 2022, found that the state lost foster homes overall in 2022 and struggled to have enough homes for siblings, children with disabilities and older children.
“These significant home losses compromised the placement array for children,” the court monitors wrote in the review. “The monitoring team has discussed with DHHS the need for the agency to develop and implement targeted, systemic strategies to improve the licensure and maintenance of foster homes, including homes for special populations.”
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said the department has been working to recruit new foster families with weekly communications to people who sign up to receive information about fostering and a paid advertising campaign.
“We need foster families across the state to keep these children safe and to care for them until they can be returned to their family if it is safe or find a loving adoptive family,” Sutfin said. “Michigan has implemented a multi-faceted approach to providing homes for children in care via recruitment of new homes and enhancing efforts to retain existing homes.”
State officials also have been focusing on placing children with relatives so they can stay with family, she said. The state has invested in family-finding resources and created staff positions to identify and support relatives, she said.
Sutfin noted that the number of kids in foster care has decreased from 19,000 in 2008 to less than 10,000 now. This is because the Michigan department is doing more to provide services for families so they can keep kids in their homes, Sutfin said.
Still, Michigan has struggled to license more foster homes. In 2022, it fell short of its goal of licensing 965 new non-relative homes, reaching 87.6% of that mark. It licensed 845 homes, but during the year, 1,359 homes were closed for a net loss of 514 homes.
Its goal for 2023 fell to 902 homes, but the state continued losing homes in the first three months of 2023.
While the monitors’ review didn’t include the total number of foster homes, the state had 4,169 licensed foster homes through March 31, 2023, according to Fostering Media Connections, a nonprofit that surveys the states for foster home information.
“In (state fiscal year) 2022, DHHS still had substantial work to do to understand and stem net foster home losses and to heighten its focus on licensing foster homes for the special populations of siblings and adolescents,” court monitors wrote in the most recent report. “Significant home losses compromised the placement array for children and contributed to the separation of siblings and the placement of children in shelters.”
Steps to find more foster parents, homes
State officials have been taking steps to boost the number of foster parents in Michigan.
As part of her latest budget that took effect in October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer increased payment rates for foster parents 8%, bringing the rate for caregivers of youth up to age 12 to approximately $670 a month and $800 a month for those older than 13. Payment rates also were raised in 2022.
The state also has been working to provide respite for foster parents.
“Right now, close to one-third of foster parents close their licenses every year, a fact that places new stress on a system that already badly needs more loving, caring foster parents,” said department Director Elizabeth Hertel in a statement when the payment increase was announced in August. “Through providing more money to foster parents while also giving them a break, we continue to do everything in our power to make Michigan the safest place in America to raise kids and nurture families.”
Still, the current system faces challenges, according to court monitors.
The state human services department did not provide evidence that systemic and targeted strategies were meaningfully implemented to improve outcomes, nor did they make good faith efforts to maintain a sufficient number and array of foster homes, according to the December monitoring report.
The state has been working with Adopt US Kids to develop a framework for agencies to address foster parent retention.
The last time the Michigan department met the goal for an appropriate foster home array was in 2017.
The state department also struggled to ensure the safety of children while they were in child caring institutions, according to court monitors. They found evidence of insufficient licensing investigations and corrective action plans that were often delayed, unspecific and did not reduce the risk of harm to children. They noted frequent repeat violations, such as physical intervention and improper restraints causing injuries, recurred despite the corrective action plans.
Other areas state officials struggled with included keeping sibling groups together, investigating maltreatment in care reports, keeping kids in emergency or temporary facilities for longer than 30 days, services being made available to parents and children in a timely manner, allowing kids to have enough visits with their parents and providing services to support older kids achieving permanency, the monitors found.
In the latter half of 2022, 37% of kids who left foster care were reunified with their parents, 41% were adopted, 14% were emancipated and 6% went to a guardianship. The federal reunification goal is 60%.
The state will be released from the consent decree when it completes a list of improvements, such as better handling the maltreatment of kids in foster care, ensuring families and children are provided services in a timely manner, not separating siblings in foster care and not placing children in emergency or temporary facilities more than once per year.