Judge might relax aggressive child welfare overhaul

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BY ROBIN ERB DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

A Michigan judge might relax on Monday an aggressive schedule for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the state’s child welfare system.

Representatives of the Michigan Department of Human Services, a New York child advocacy group, and a federal court monitor have been preparing for a periodic progress report in a 2008 settlement designed to better care for thousands of Michigan children. The state has repeatedly missed crucial benchmarks.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds scheduled a hearing Monday to consider a “modified consent decree.”

Details were not immediately available, but the hearing may signal a drastic change. In December, the state faced the possibility of a contempt of court ruling after it repeatedly failed to meet the conditions of the agreement that began with a 2006 lawsuit by New York-based Children’s Rights.

The group criticized the state for what it described as life-threatening poor care for children. Years of budget cuts, the loss of experienced social service workers and the state’s failure to tap into federal funding contributed to the crisis, according to the suit.

But since the beginning of the year and a change in leadership at DHS — it is now headed by Maura Corrigan, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice — caseloads have shrunk, fewer children are waiting for adoption, and new technology for field and office workers will help track cases and address critical data gaps.

“What has been accomplished since January is monumental,” said Janet Reynolds, executive director of Michigan Federation for Children and Families, which represents private, nonprofit foster care and adoption agencies.

The 2008 agreement, though well-intentioned, set standards too high for a state in financial crisis, said Jack Kresnak, president and CEO of Michigan’s Children, and a former Free Press reporter.

“Scaling back the requirements will mean we might be able to meet them.… We need to put this behind us,” he said.

Contact Robin Erb: 313-222-2708 or rerb@freepress.com

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