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Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon recently outlined his agenda to improve outcomes for children and families involved in the state’s child welfare system.
Gordon’s comments came as he and other MDHHS officials appeared in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to update Judge Nancy G. Edmunds on state efforts to reform its child welfare system.
“We can do better. We must do better. And we will do better,” Gordon said. “Our staff are deeply dedicated to serving children and families in crisis. They need the tools and the systems to succeed. That’s what we must offer them.”
The federal court appearance was the first since Gordon became MDHHS director in January. The court is monitoring the state’s child welfare system under the Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan approved in court in February 2016. Federal monitors discussed their report on the department’s progress for January to December 2017.
That plan took the place of the Modified Settlement Agreement approved in 2011 that came after a lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Children’s Rights in 2006.
The court also received an independent report that detailed continuing issues with the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (MiSACWIS), which MDHHS uses to collect, store, process and produce data related to its federal court commitments. The report from Kurt Heisler Consulting was made public in court.
Gordon outlined several principles for the state’s actions. “We will not defend what we cannot defend,” he said, referring to findings about increased numbers of children who experienced maltreatment while in foster care in 2017. “We will focus on results. We will lead with urgency. And we will use real-time data to improve our practice.”
Despite the limitations of MiSACWIS, Gordon said, the department can begin making better use of data to identify trends and act on the challenges identified in the data. He described work with external experts to improve the use of data.
Jennifer Wrayno, acting executive director of the MDHHS Children’s Services Agency, in court outlined specific measures being undertaken by the department to address challenges facing the state’s child welfare system.
Providing financial incentives for relatives to become licensed foster parents.
Additional review at local MDHHS child welfare offices of maltreatment that occurs while children are in foster care.
Additional oversight of child abuse/neglect complaints that are screened out because they do not meet the criteria for investigation under the Michigan Child Protection Law.
“Child welfare staff from MDHHS and the department’s private partner agencies are doing tremendous work on behalf of children who have been the victims of abuse and neglect and their families,” Wrayno said. “We need to better equip them to address child safety and well-being and find children permanent homes more quickly through reunification with their families or adoption.”
Judge Edmunds stated that while she was concerned about the lack of progress during the reporting period, it is time to move forward.
“It definitely is heartening to hear the jumpstart that the Whitmer administration – in particular Ms. Wrayno and Director Gordon – have undertaken to move forward in these important areas,” she said.
She scheduled a status conference hearing for June 27 to receive an update on progress.
The court monitor report released today showed that Michigan had met requirements for movement of six performance standards in the Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan. In two instances, MDHHS met standards for at least two consecutive reporting periods, making those standards eligible for exiting further court oversight.
Those standards were related to children in foster care receiving an appropriate education and maintaining continuity in education by keeping the children in a familiar or current school or neighborhood.
In four other instances, MDHHS’s performance sustained progress for at least two consecutive reporting periods. Those standards were related to licensing work qualifications and training, the number of treatment foster home beds, the diagnosis process for administering psychotropic medications to children in foster care and proper oversight of psychotropic medication.
Gordon said he prioritized improving outcomes for children and families over exiting from judicial oversight. “We will not talk about exit today,” he said. “And we will not talk about it in the future unless and until we can demonstrate we are doing better by the children we serve on the things that matter most.”
To view the latest federal court monitor report, the full Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan, earlier reports and the original Modified Settlement Agreement, visit www.michigan.gov/ChildWelfareAgreement.