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

Michigan's foster care system getting better, but kids still suffer because of state's lapses

David Machiavello

State of Opportunity will air a documentary on foster care on Thursday, October 30th. In the lead up to Thursday, we're publishing a series of articles that explore specific aspects of the foster care system or challenges kids within that system face.

The foster care system saves a lot of kids from abuse and neglect. But for a child that ends up in Michigan's foster care system, their chances at a safe and healthy experience are just that, a chance. The statistics on the abuse and neglect that happens within the foster care system are shocking. Last year more than 1,000 kids in the system were harmed or neglected inside the system that is supposed to keep them safe from such treatment. 

It's no comfort to those children who have been traumatized by the state's foster care system, but the system has gotten a lot better in the last few years. For that, we have a lawsuit to thank. 

A legal advocacy organization called  Children's Rightssued Michigan over its treatment of kids in foster care 8 years ago. After a settlement and some legal back and forth, what we've ended up with is a foster care system that is monitored by the federal courts. Every 9 months or so, a group of independent monitors reports on the progress the state is making towards creating a system where fewer kids will end up being hurt or falling through the cracks.

There is a huge number of metrics these monitors keep track of, from caseworker training and visits, to how many kids were put in juvenile justice facilities instead of appropriate foster care placements, conceivably because the state had nowhere else for them to go (13 kids last year).

The last monitoring report was released a few weeks ago and it was a mixed review. Basically, the monitors said the state is improving, but not doing well enough on a number of very important measures, the most basic measure, child safety, chief among them. 

So the question is, how long will it take for Michigan's system to improve enough where entering the system will feel less like Russian Roulette to the kids being removed from their families, and more like the best option in an overall crappy situation?

Sara Bartosz is Children's Right's lead attorney on the Michigan case.  She says the state is in "a bit of a transition period" when it comes to the case. Michigan recently launched a new data system to keep track of the kids in care and their outcomes. Once those data points come through the state the court will know much more about things like access to healthcare, visitation with siblings, and number of moves a child in foster care experiences.  Those data points also mean the court will have a more accurate view of how much work the state still has in order to bring the child welfare system into compliance with the consent decree.

Sara Bartosz says, "It’s everyone’s hope that this system is where it needs to be sooner rather than later."

It seems likely, however, that the state will continue to be monitored by the court for years to come.