Michigan’s foster care system is huge, the sixth biggest in the country. So many kids in the system were being abused, neglected or just forgotten about under the state’s care that a group called Children’s Rights sued the state to force it to change in 2006. Two years ago, the state entered into a court settlement and is now being monitored as it makes changes to its child welfare system.
Toni Williams grew up in foster care. She spent almost her whole life in the system, from the time she was a baby until a year ago when the state says she became too old for the system. Williams was 20. Under recent legislation some young people in Michigan can now receive transitional services until 21.
Williams just graduated from high school and is going to community college in the fall where she’s going to study to be a childcare provider and maybe work with the foster system.
“The reason why is because I know what it feels like, you know, to not have your family," says Williams. "You know what I’m saying? So it’s actually a good feeling to know that there’s someone out here who is willing to take a place for being a mother, or a father.”
Williams knows somebody needs to step up and be there for kids who need love, and guidance. The state for too long, was not stepping up.
So when the state got sued the court said it has to do much more to keep kids safe from abuse and neglect in foster care. For example it will have to move kids out of the system faster and try to get kids a permanent placement-like an adoption or something close to it-within a year. That might keep kids from having to go through what Williams did. She lived with five different families before she was seven years-old and lived in several more placements after that.
But Williams only found a place she feels safe and comfortable last year. She started staying at Ruth Ellis Center, and that’s where she is now. It’s a caring place for homeless gay and transgender youth with a friendly and super competent staff.
Experts agree that moving a lot and not having a place that feels like home is traumatic for kids. They’re changing schools, living with strangers, and some of those people are not good substitute parents.
So has the court stepping in changed things for these kids in the system? Maura Corrigan is the Director of the the Michigan Department of Human Services. She says the state is making improvements.
The state has done a lot under the settlement. It has made lots of new rules, hired hundreds more case workers, given them more training and licensed more foster care placements. And more changes are coming. Corrigan says the state’s child welfare system is like a house, a nice house.
"Our house is getting in order," says Corrigan. "It's a house that is vibrant and where children are welcome."
But there are others, advocates like Frank Vandervort, who think this case isn’t going to make the system much better. He would like to see an overhaul in how the state approaches families in crisis.
Vandervort says, “In child welfare it’s as if you walk into the emergency room they put a cast on your leg and then did x-rays and find out in fact it’s your arm that is broken. And we do that in child welfare as a matter of practice in this state."
What Vandervort means is that the state doesn’t really address what gets a family to the breaking point. The state just decides whether kids can stay with their families or if they need to be removed. He wants to see the state do more to help keep kids out of the system in the first place. He thinks if the state offered mental health care, domestic violence prevention, maybe even just child care to families when they were close to the breaking point-that this would help.
There is a 37 year-old law on the state books that says this is how child welfare cases should be handled-but nobody’s paying attention to it.
It doesn’t look like the state is going to change its approach to child welfare. The case against the state is just designed to make the kids in the current system safer.
Two years in the rates of abuse in foster care remain higher than the court would like. And, the bulk of the work on changes like moving kids out of the system faster is still to come. So, the court will be monitoring the state for at least two more years.
*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.