LANSING — Shortly after Gov. Rick Snyder’s child welfare agency argued to a federal judge it had improved enough to escape court oversight, one of the state’s foster children drowned in a lake near Flint.
Omarion Humphrey, 9, was autistic. On July 4, 2015, he wandered away from a foster mother who had no specialized training to care for him.
“We had him for nine years and nothing even close to that happened to him,” his sister, 21-year-old Cyrria Mims, said in a recent interview. “They had him for four months and he ended up dead.”
More Michigan kids are dying from abuse or neglect than a decade ago, when the state settled a federal lawsuit and vowed to improve its child welfare system, a Lansing State Journal investigation found.
Deaths increased despite the hundreds of millions Michigan spent on reforms, including doubling its child welfare budget and nearly doubling the child welfare staff.
In 2008, the year Michigan settled the lawsuit, the state reported 59 deaths from abuse or neglect. In 2016, the most recent year data is available, Michigan reported 85 such deaths and became one of the five worst states in the nation.
Also in 2016, the Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman opened a record number of investigations into the deaths of foster children or kids whose families had recently received child welfare services.
The ombudsman says the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services did everything right in 6% of the hundreds of cases it reviewed between February 2016 and March 2018. Those reviews included child deaths and other cases involving Children’s Protective Services investigations, foster care and adoption.
Records show state employees and contractors frequently violate the laws and policies meant to protect kids from harm and often fail to intervene when they should. The ombudsman has written more than 500 suggested improvements to the child welfare system over the last decade, including 155 related to child deaths.
While Michigan has made reforms it should be proud of, “we remain deeply concerned about the ability of the state to keep kids safe when they’re in foster care,” said Elizabeth Pitman Gretter, an attorney for Children’s Rights. That’s the New York advocacy group that sued Michigan after several high-profile child deaths, including the 2005 killing of Williamston’s Ricky Holland by his adoptive parents.
Omarion Humphrey’s death 10 years later illustrates the ongoing flaws. DHHS had removed Humphrey and 10 of his siblings from their parents over living conditions officials said were unsafe. But the state placed Humphrey with a foster mother who had a history of complaints and no training on how to handle autistic children.
“I don’t think anyone that had him there that day actually was sorry,” Mims said. “My son will never have met his uncle, ever. My baby brothers don’t even know who he is. And my younger brothers don’t remember who he is.”
DHHS can’t comment on specific cases, but spokesman Bob Wheaton pointed to state policies requiring the department to place kids in the most appropriate home and minimize “the trauma experienced by the child and family.”
The DHHS contractor that placed Humphrey lost its license; Humphrey’s siblings were returned to their parents in December 2016.
Herman McCall, executive director of Michigan’s child welfare programs, refused to be interviewed or answer written questions for this article, citing the ongoing federal lawsuit. Instead, he issued a written statement pointing to numerous new programs launched over the last decade.
“Since coming under federal court oversight in 2008,” the statement says, “MDHHS has taken numerous measures designed to increase safety and well-being … and deliver effective services to achieve positive outcomes for children and families.”
Mistakes like what happened to Humphrey will continue to happen, current and former DHHS employees said, because of excessive turnover that leaves kids’ lives in the hands of inexperienced caseworkers.
State civil service records suggest only about 18% of child welfare employees have at least 10 years on the job. The average worker has about 7 years’ experience.
That can be a serious shortcoming. Child welfare workers need a deep understanding of state and federal law, the court system, and community resources available to families.
“You just don’t get that without time in the trenches,” said David Berns, who ran child welfare agencies in several states, including Michigan in the 1990s.
Turnover is a common problem in the high-stress, high-stakes world of child welfare, especially given that the pay is relatively low. DHHS’ child welfare workers make between $19.41 and $33.32 an hour.
But current and former DHHS employees who spoke with the State Journal said the problem is exacerbated in Michigan. Employees often quit out of frustration with supervisors who they believe are more concerned about escaping court oversight than giving kids what they really need.
Supervisors often tolerate — or even subtly encourage — shortcuts while harassing workers who take too long to close cases, workers said.
“The State of Michigan doesn’t care,” said Adre Brown, a former CPS investigator in Ingham County. “As long as you get your cases done in 30 days, you’re a rock star.”
There’s evidence to support those claims. Last year, DHHS reassigned a regional supervisor in the Upper Peninsula amid allegations that supervisors bullied employees.
The federal court, state lawmakers and the Michigan Auditor General are investigating allegations — first uncovered by the State Journal last year — that supervisors frequently assign cases to employees who are on leave for medical or other reasons. That makes the state appear to be in compliance with court-ordered caseload limits but may delay crucial interventions in kids’ lives.
DHHS knows it has a turnover problem.
The department commissioned a study of its foster care programs in 2015. Researchers found turnover among foster care workers was more than 16%, compared to less than 10% across all state government jobs. DHHS spends $1.5 million a year hiring and training new foster care caseworkers, researchers from the National Council on Crime & Delinquency said in that report.
The report concluded DHHS should hire enough foster care employees so none were responsible for more than 13 cases, to give employees adequate time for kids. Yet, DHHS has repeatedly missed the 15-cases-per-worker requirement spelled out in the federal lawsuit, including in the most recent monitoring report.
The department also exceeded caseload limits for supervisors and CPS workers. The department was within caseload limits for licensing staff and employees who run the statewide hotline where suspected abuse is reported.
McCall, the state’s child welfare chief, told lawmakers in March that DHHS has used the results of employee surveys to make the department a more attractive place to work.
In his written statement to the State Journal, he said officials have focused on hiring qualified staff, providing quality training, and helping employees deal with the secondary trauma they might experience through the horrors they witness in their work.
“Recognizing that a healthy workforce is a significant asset to successful improvement and sustainability of Michigan’s child welfare system, MDHHS continues to develop and implement efforts focused on addressing workforce barriers,” McCall said in the statement.
But it isn’t clear that’s really happening. Last year’s surveys revealed skepticism among employees at the Children’s Services Agency, the umbrella organization McCall runs that covers child welfare programs, juvenile justice and more.
Just more than a quarter of those employees said they’d seen meaningful change come from engagement survey results. Most said DHHS leadership is untrustworthy and that employees cannot share their opinions without fear of retaliation.
So turnover remains a problem. And families feel the effects.
For about two years, White Lake’s Brendan and Erika Bedini have had legal guardianship of their 5-year-old niece, Addisyn Lantto, because the girl’s mother struggled with alcoholism.
The Bedinis say they feared for their niece’s safety because DHHS allowed Addisyn to visit her mother even as the mother had relapse after relapse. The Bedinis said they struggled to get Children’s Protective Services to respond to their concerns.
Wheaton, the DHHS spokesman, pointed to policies that encourage parental visitation plans that are “in the best interest of the child and … develop or enhance attachment with the child’s family.”
Brendan Bedini said the state repeatedly made the wrong decision in Addisyn’s case. He blamed that, in part, on the fact that they dealt with a dozen different caseworkers over less than three years.
“I don’t know what the problem is” at DHHS, he said, “except there’s no leadership. There’s no direction. There’s no one to go to.”
‘Driving … in the blind’
Children’s Rights, the New York group that sued Michigan, has sued 13 other state- and county-based child welfare agencies since 1977. Seven of those cases are ongoing, and the group has pending suits against Florida and Arizona.
Each state’s problems are unique, but “Michigan did seem to get off to a slower start,” said Pitman Gretter, the Children’s Rights attorney. “We are frustrated that we aren’t further down the road.”
Michigan has changed its system in the decade since then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the first settlement with Children’s Rights.
Granholm’s administration in 2009 created a specialized unit to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect in foster care.
In 2012, Snyder’s administration opened a centralized intake hotline where all allegations of child abuse or neglect are reported and assigned for investigation.
In 2015, the administration launched a massive, $61 million computer system meant to improve data collection and analysis — though that program has been glitch-ridden since it went online.
Those and other efforts have helped the state improve upon some key statistics. The state has sharply reduced the number of kids in foster care. At a hearing in the federal lawsuit last summer, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds praised the state for more quickly finding kids permanent homes.
“It is a happy event, and everyone involved should feel proud of what’s been accomplished,” Edmunds said.
But much remains to be done.
In their latest report, court-appointed consultants tracking Michigan’s progress in the federal lawsuit said DHHS had accomplished less than 25% of the goals laid out for it.
Among the missed targets: Several abuse investigations took longer than allowed by state law. Nearly a third of the allegations of abuse in foster care that should have been assigned for investigation never were. And the department failed to run background checks on some of the relatives with whom children were placed, meaning some kids were placed in homes with unsecured firearms or where drugs were abused.
And monitors still can’t measure the state’s progress on many metrics. Partly because of the still-glitchy computer system launched in 2015, monitors said in their last report they couldn’t gauge the state’s progress on 28% of the requirements.
“How does management know, day to day, what decisions to make?” Sara Bartosz, another Children’s Rights attorney, told Edmunds at the 2017 hearing. “You’re driving a bus in the blind.”
Meanwhile, Children’s Ombudsman Orlene Hawks said DHHS continues to show “a very concerning pattern of not following those rules and policies” in investigations.
As long as there is poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence and other family strife that puts kids at risk, bad things will happen, Pitman Gretter told the State Journal.
But she said kids shouldn’t get hurt because the government agency meant to protect them messed up.
“You look for a system in place that protects against those human errors,” she said. “Child welfare is a messy world, but it is not a standard-less world.”
In 2016, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services reported 263 child deaths — many during or shortly after state intervention — to the Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman. Here’s how those deaths happened:
16%: Unsafe sleep practices
12%: Natural causes/health issues
18%: Miscellaneous, including drowning, suicide and fire.
Source: Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman
13,439: Number of Michigan foster children as of Dec. 31, 2017, compared to more than 18,000 in 2008.
76: The number of Michigan children who were abused or neglected in foster care in 2016, compared to 203 in 2011.
85: The number of child deaths from abuse or neglect reported in 2016, compared to 59 in 2008.
144: The number of child death investigations opened by the Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman in 2016, compared to 74 in 2009.
$1.2 billion: Michigan Children’s Services Agency budget for the 2018 fiscal year, including $25 million on legal fees and monitoring costs in the federal lawsuit.
Sources: Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, U.S. Administration for Children & Families
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