STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Could more lawyers make Michigan's child welfare system work better?

Nancy Sims

Michigan’s foster care system is the sixth-biggest in the country, with more than 13,000 kids around the state. The system has been plagued by problems over the last several years. 

Court monitors, appointed after the state was sued over the treatment of children in its foster care system, say the system has improved over the past few years, but it still falls short when it comes to keeping kids safe.

The court has also said the state needs to reduce the time children are in the system while they wait to be adopted or reunited with their families.

For every one of these 13,000 kids, there is a specific story behind what landed them in foster care in the first place or how their life unfolded afterward. The same can be said of their parents or the adults who stand in for parents. Many of these adults can feel just as trapped in the system as the children.

Vanessa Moss is one of those adults.  She had guardianship of some of her grandchildren for years. In all, she took care of four of her grandchildren. She stepped in because the children’s mother, Moss' daughter, has had serious mental and physical health issues.

When Moss began caring for her grandchildren, she didn't know much about, or want much to do with the child welfare system.  

"I don’t want my grandkids in the system." Moss says tearfully. "The only thing I wanted to do for my daughter was keep her kids all together."  

Moss has never received financial support from the state for caring for her grandchildren other than a food stamp allowance. She struggles financially. In October she was evicted from her home in Oakland County. Her youngest granddaughter was placed with another relative. Her two teenage grandsons went with Moss to a hotel. (Moss' oldest granddaughter had recently begun her first year of college and moved before the eviction).

Moss and her grandsons lived in the hotel for a few weeks while Moss cashed out the rest of her retirement savings and started the process of getting into another home. The process was slowed down by a wait for housing vouchers.

The day before Thanksgiving, Moss' grandsons were removed from her care by Child Protective Services, ostensibly because of the living arrangements. By that time, however, the Department of Human Services, which runs CPS, had brought various complaints against Moss relating to the care of her grandchildren.

Moss has argued against every one of these complaints at various levels of the child welfare system. She has been successful on some occasions, but not this one.

Moss left a tear-filled voicemail for me the night her grandsons were removed.  It would make more sense for Moss to call a lawyer instead of a reporter. But like many of the relatives dealing with the child welfare system, she can’t afford one. She’s on her own and she feels outmatched.

“It seems like they can do whatever they want to do and get away with it," she said. "I don’t know what I’m going to do."

Moss has not seen her grandsons since they were removed from her care and placed with another relative in a different city. She blames the system, and she knows the system blames her. This deep mistrust is common in child welfare cases, says Vivek Sankaran, a lawyer and a law professor who runs a child welfare legal clinic in Detroit.

“You’re not going to change the child welfare system until you have parents and relatives viewed as partners in this process with the child welfare agency,” he said. 

Sankaran has said for years that what could make these caregivers more equal partners is a good lawyer working on behalf of the parents and relatives. All the lawyer jokes we've ever heard might make that suggestion seem counterintuitive. 

But judges, sections of the Michigan State bar, and parents have long said more lawyers are needed. Without them, Sankaran says it’s hard to know if the decisions being made – serious decisions about whether to separate a family or not – are the right ones.

“What I see all too frequently, because of the lack of quality legal representation, is that  accountability doesn’t happen, and poor decisions are being made as a result," he says.

Sankaran can't say whether the decision to remove Moss' grandchildren was a good or bad one. But Sankaran does think more lawyers would increase the accountability of the system so that decisions made within it are more trusted. It would also make it easier for people like Moss, who have a very real stake in these cases, to be heard. 

In child welfare cases, parents are supposed to have lawyers appointed to represent them, but Sankaran and others have questioned whether this representation is adequate. For relatives like Moss, lawyers are not appointed. That is true even when these people are standing in for a parent.  

Sankaran says this leaves a lot of people feeling like they are losing in a type of court case where there are not supposed to be winners and losers. Child welfare cases are supposed to work differently. 

“What makes these cases different is that everyone has the same goal," Sankaran explains. "In the overwhelming majority of cases the goal is reunification, to bring the family back home.”

Other states, like Washington, have tried and studied the approach of providing more and better lawyers. In that case it made the system work faster and brought more families back together.

The Department of Human Services declined to comment for this article, other than to say "Overrall, we believe the courts provide for representing the best interests of the child."

Vanessa Moss is still looking for a lawyer she can afford. She wants to get off the list of people DHS says have mistreated children. Moss says she doesn't belong on the list and it affects her ability to see her grandchildren.

It will be an uphill battle. There is about one legal services lawyer for every 21,000 low-income state residents

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