Jim Paparella: Settlement spells hope for Michigan's kids in need
Long-overdue reforms coming for state care
October 16, 2008 â€¢ From Lansing State Journal
Optimism for a vastly improved child welfare system in Michigan is at an all-time high. Oddly enough, it's due to a lawsuit. In 2006, the national advocacy group Children's Rights filed suit on behalf of the approximately 19,000 abused and neglected children in the custody of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS).
A settlement agreement reached by both parties in July 2008 spells out remedies long overdue for a system that has suffered from its own neglect. In effect, the settlement agreement demands that Michigan devote appropriate attention and resources to fulfill its responsibilities to children in foster care.
The settlement resulted from many long months of hard work and was accelerated by newly appointed DHS officials who came aboard last fall. Refreshing from the perspective of private nonprofit agencies in Michigan is the crystal clear vision, direction, and open-mindedness demonstrated by the new leadership. Over the past year, a strong sense of mutual respect and trust has been cultivated between the public and private services sectors, providing the sound foundation that will be needed to implement the major reforms called for in the settlement.
Equally positive is the selection of an independent Monitoring Team assigned to oversee the five-year settlement implementation and 18-month follow-up. The team brings to Michigan a wealth of hands-on experience in system reform in other states and insights that will mean Michigan can avoid known pitfalls and move toward success more quickly.
In brief, the settlement calls for a shift in DHS organizational structure that elevates and consolidates children's services, increased child welfare worker and supervisor qualifications and training, reduced caseload sizes and supervisor-to-worker ratios, licensing of relative foster care providers, effective recruitment of foster and adoptive families, permanency planning for all children in care, services for youth transitioning to adulthood, improved assessment and mental health services, greater attention to the special needs of children, and team decision making.
Success is going to take every ounce of energy and expertise of every partner in this endeavor: state legislators, state policymakers, state and local DHS administrators and workers, contracted private nonprofit agency employees, boards, volunteers and community leaders, university Schools of Social Work, foundations and more.
The single largest challenge, however, may be securing the financial resources needed to actuate change. No matter what the economic outlook in this state, the Michigan Legislature must address what will be, minimally, annual requests for funding "to effect the provisions and outcome measures set forth in this Settlement Agreement ..." Cutting caseloads in half, lowering supervisory ratios and training and retaining qualified and quality staff must be accomplished quickly in order to achieve any level of success.
The goals are defined. The task is monumental. Failure is not an option.