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Next month could bring big changes to state's foster care lawsuit

Apr 22, 2015

Credit mootje mootje / flickr

The advocacy group Children's Rights sued the state of Michigan over its foster care system more than eight years ago because of the number of kids who were left with abusive families, or harmed once they got into foster care.

The lawsuit resulted in the state's child welfare system being monitored by the federal courts. The state wants this monitoring to end. They say, among other things, that the money required to comply with the reporting requirements of court-appointed monitors could be better spent.  Next month, all the parties involved in the lawsuit are expected to meet to discuss whether, or perhaps how, current monitoring might change.

Court monitors say the child welfare system, both the part of of that system that determines whether or not there is abuse or neglect happening in a family, and the part of the system that coordinates foster care and adoption for kids who have been removed from their families, have improved since the start of court monitoring. Case workers are better trained now than a few years ago, for example. More children are being adopted and  more quickly now than in the past. 

But the pace of change is too slow for many of the young people who have been harmed while in the child welfare system. There are about 13,000 Michigan kids in foster care at any one time. Eastern Michigan University students Zollie Cole and Justis Ferns were two of those young people. Despite their busy final exam week schedules they made time to talk about their past experiences in foster care. They both participate in Eastern's MAGIC program for students who have experienced foster care. They both say it's helped them become more comfortable talking about their experiences. They also say they wish the state would ask them what they think should have been done differently to keep them safe while they were in care and to keep other kids in the system safe. 

I would like there to be more accountability," says Cole, who entered foster care when he was 13. At his first placement, he says there were days when he was denied food, and other days when he and the other children living there were not allowed to leave the house. "I had to walk to school, had to walk miles," he continued. "I didn't have new shoes and it was winter, so I would walk with holes in my shoes in the winter."

When I got into the system I didn't have shoes, either," says Ferns. She had been removed from an abusive aunt and uncle at age 17 , whom she says would not allow her to take any of her belongings with her.  She says her foster care mother was so elderly and infirm that she didn't care for Ferns or tend to even her most basic needs, like finding her appropriate clothes to wear to school. "A teacher actually bought me shoes," she said, "and I didn't have new clothes for months."

Cole says he can find many lessons in his situation that could lead to changes in how the state cares for kids in its care. He thinks foster care placements should be more thoroughly vetted, and that caseworkers should be more rigorous in their monitoring of these placements. He also thinks one simple change would have made a difference for him: He says the state "didn't explain my rights to me in foster care as a foster care child."

He didn't disclose his abuse to the state because as a 13-year-old who came from an abusive situation, he didn't know how his foster care parents were expected to treat him. "They didn't explain to me what was supposed to go on," he says, meaning the state. Cole and Ferns both think making sure kids in foster care know and understand their rights would go a long way to helping kids communicate better with case workers.

The state won’t verify the stories of Cole and Ferns, or of any young person who was in foster care. However, to meet minimum federal funding standards, the state would need many fewer stories like this to be true.  Court monitors say since 2011, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services should have protected more than 1,200 kids still with their families from harm, and protected another 400 kids in foster care-from harm.

The state’s safety numbers are steadily improving, so there are fewer kids having experiences like this. DHHS says it is really close to meeting those standards, particularly with regard to foster care. But Cole and Ferns say they don't feel a sense of urgency.  “I’d just like to say, basically, that people aren’t doing their jobs," says Ferns.  She still has younger sisters in the foster care system, and she's not convinced they are faring better in the system than she did.

DHHS says they’re moving fast to make things better but admits they can always improve. They say the merger that happened a few months ago of the Department of Human Services and Community Mental Health will improve outcomes. They also are optimistic a new data system will allow them to better understand where the system needs to improve so they can better direct resources to those issues. For their part, the court monitors say a lot hinges on this data system working well, but that they have yet to see it fully operational. Both Ferns and Cole say they are waiting for overdue payments owed to them from their time in foster care that have been held up by bugs in the system. 

Both Cole and Ferns think  these issues run deeper than data glitches. DHHS will have to prove to them, and to other young people in the child welfare system, that improvement will be sufficient, and continuous. Speaking about his years in foster care, Cole says, “Coming out of it as strong as I did was great. But, not all kids come out of it the way that I did or the way that Justis did." he says. "Everybody doesn’t have the strength to take it."