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A guide for parents involved in Michigan's child welfare system

Judson Center Parent Partner Kim Young.
Reel Clever Films
Judson Center Parent Partner Kim Young.

As a parent, you want your kids to grow and develop into successful adults. Providing a stable and safe home is an important part of doing that.

But families aren’t the only ones who are responsible for making sure kids are growing up in a safe environment. 

When there is a concern for a child’s safety, the state’s Child Protective Services agency steps in to make sure that kids are safe in their homes.

For parents, this can be a confusing and scary process, and knowing what’s ahead of you is important.

We interviewed a few people who have each seen the process play out from a different perspective.

You’ll find their stories below along with a guide to some of the most important things you need to know as a parent involved in Michigan’s child welfare system.  

(The videos and guide in this post are for informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice. For questions on an individual case, consult your attorney.)

At their worst times, lawyer sees the best in families. 

A judge's effort to make family court a space for healing, not hurting. 

One mom's story of bringing her kids home from foster care.

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

What you need to know about Michigan's child welfare system 

Something we’ve heard from parents like Kim Young is that before their kids were in foster care, they had no idea how the child welfare system worked. That lack of knowledge made it hard for them to advocate for themselves in the process.

So we've laid out some of the basics about what to expect as a parent when you're involved in a child welfare case. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to additional resources and information.       

A knock on the door

Having Child Protective Services show up at your home can be a scary experience. But it’s important to remember that a vast majority of visits (around 75% of cases) from Child Protective Services do not end with any kind of action from the agency.

Here’s how it works:

  1. CPS gets a call saying that they suspect your child is being abused or neglected. Some people, like teachers and doctors, are legally required to report any suspicion of neglect or abuse. 
  2. CPS will then interview the child or children. CPS workers may come to the home to interview the kids, but they might also interview them at school or another location.
  3. If the interview happens at school or before a parent is notified, the caseworker is required to make contact with the parents as soon as possible.
  4. If the worker doesn’t find evidence of abuse or neglect, they may still offer a parent services or resources, but you aren’t required to take advantage of them.   

For most parents, that’s the end of their contact with CPS.
But if the caseworker thinks there is evidence of neglect or abuse, the case stays open. 

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

What comes next?

After CPS and the Department of Health and Human Services decide they have evidence of abuse or neglect, the agency has to go to court and explain why it is in a child’s best interest for the family to be involved in the child welfare system.

Then there are a few things that could happen next.

A judge or jury dismisses your case

The court could decide there isn’t enough evidence of abuse or neglect to move forward with a child protective case. This could happen at your preliminary hearing or during a trial in front of a judge or jury.  

In-home placement

A child remains at home with their parents while the family’s case is open. The foster care worker will regularly meet with the family and monitor parents’ progress on the case plan, which is the document that lays out the goals parents have to meet before their child welfare case is closed. 

Out-of-home placement

When Child Protective Services decides it isn’t safe for your child to remain at home and a family court judge agrees, your child will be placed in out-of-home care. The first choice for out-of-home care is to have the child live with another family member. If there is not a family member who can take care of the child, the child will be assigned to a foster family.

Termination of parental rights

In the most serious cases of severe physical or sexual abuse, the state can move to terminate parental rights immediately. A judge has to find it would be in the best interest of a child before parental rights are terminated. This means a parent is no longer allowed to make decisions for their child, to visit him or her, and other restrictions the court decides are necessary.  

Going to court

Once a family is involved with the child welfare system, they will need to show up to a series of court hearings. Each court has its own set of rules when it comes to child welfare cases, but here is a basic timeline of how your case will move forward.

(For a more detailed guide about what happens in a child welfare court case, check out this handbook from the Michigan Court Improvement Program.)

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Your rights as a parent

As a parent going through a child welfare case, you have a number of rights that protect you during the process. 

You have a right to a lawyer.

You have the right to a lawyer who will be an effective advocate for you in court. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the court must appoint one.

You have a right to participate in your court hearings.

This means you are present at every hearing and that you understand what is happening during each step of the process. If you are currently incarcerated, you may participate over the phone or internet instead of in person.

You have a right to understand your case.

There is a lot of information that will be discussed during your court hearings. If you don’t understand something that’s being said, ask the caseworker, judge, or your lawyer to explain it.  

You have a right to parenting time with your kids.

In most cases, you still have a right to spend time with your children when they are in foster care or other out-of-home placement. The kind of visits you have with your children may change throughout the case. 

You have a right to a trial by a judge or jury.

When Child Protective Services makes an allegation that you have abused or neglected your child, you have the right to dispute those allegations in front of a judge or jury.

You have a right to know what you need to do to get your kids back home.

The goal of the child welfare system is to reunite children with their parents whenever possible. As a parent, you have the right to understand what you need to do to bring your child home and to be connected to resources that help you meet the requirements of your case plan.

If your child has Native American heritage, there is a special set of rules and rights that apply in your case.

Talk to your attorney about what to do if your child is enrolled in or eligible to be enrolled in a federally recognized Native American tribe. 

Who is involved in a child welfare case?

There are a number of people who are involved in a child welfare case. Here’s who you can expect to see in and outside of court.

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Need more help or information? Here are some additional resources for parents whose families are involved in the child welfare system.  

211lets you search for a variety of service providers in your area for help with everything from housing and transportation to parenting classes. 

A detailed guide to Michigan’s child welfare court system from the Michigan Court Improvement Program. 

The University of Michigan Child Advocacy Law Clinic represents parents and children in the child welfare court. The clinic does not charge for its services. 

Michigan Legal Help lets you search for legal representation and other services by county.  

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services guide to working with Child Protective Services.

The Office of Children’s Ombudsman does independent investigations when there are complaints about DHHS in a child welfare case. 

Here is a list of rehab facilities in Michigan that allow moms with drug or alcohol addictions to keep their children with them while they get treatment. 

Ann Arbor aerial footage courtesy of Constant Motion Productions

April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
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