WUOMFM

If Michigan really wants to improve child welfare, we might have to copy California

Feb 17, 2015

Kamala Harris, left, is the attorney general of California and is leading a new effort to improve services for kids in both the child welfare and juvenile systems.
Credit Steve Rhodes / flickr

Michigan has been under a federal court order to improve its foster care system for years. The state wants the monitoring to stop, but there's no guarantee that's going to happen soon. 

Being the focus of federal oversight is probably a pain. There are a ton of reporting requirements, it costs money, and the state gets ordered around a lot. 

But having this watchdog has improved outcomes for kids in foster care. If the court steps out, who is going to step up to make sure those outcomes don't slip back? Kids can pay for those failures with their safety and their futures. 

As of last week, California is doing some of this watchdogging itself. The one holding feet to the legal fire is Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris recently put state and county officials on serious notice when it comes to unequal treatment of kids in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. 

Harris said she's looking to enforce the rights of vulnerable kids as the chief law officer in the state. She has created something called the Bureau of Children's Justice to do this work. Harris has promised to use civil rights and criminal prosecutors to hold counties and private agencies accountable for child trafficking, elementary school truancy, even childhood trauma. 

If that seems like overreaching, remember that Harris is effectively just looking out for her kids. When the state takes kids into custody for committing a crime, or decides to remove them from their parents, the state is stepping in as the parent. What Harris is doing is helicopter parenting on a civic scale, and it just might work.

In California, just like in Michigan, foster care and juvenile justice is decentralized. The state has all the legal responsibility, but the counties, or even private agencies, do almost all the work. Having a system like this opens up a lot of cracks that inevitably kids will fall through.

And as different as Michigan and California are, child welfare outcomes in both are pretty similar. (You can compare all states  against each other by reading this. If you want to compare just California and Michigan, take a look at pages 61-66 and 179-185). Neither state, for example, has yet figured out how to buck the national trend of kids from the child welfare system being more likely to end up in prison than in college

That is just one way in which the stakes are incredibly high for the kids and families in these systems. Bad decisions by agencies or county or state officials can put a child's safety at risk or devastate a family. 

What Michigan does not seem to have is as prominent and public a figure as Harris (she's currently running for U.S. Senate) stepping up for vulnerable kids.

I often ask national experts on child welfare which state they would point to as exceptional in this area. I've never gotten a consistent answer. If Harris's actions improve outcomes for California kids, that might change.