LANSING, Mich. – With new leadership in place, Michigan is making needed improvements to its child welfare system to keep children safer and families together. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) officials today shared successes during the early stages of their reform efforts and promised even more significant progress as new plans are put into place.
MDHHS was in federal court virtually via Zoom to report on child welfare system improvements during the last six months of 2019 and listen to a report from court-appointed monitors. That monitoring period coincided with the beginning of JooYeun Chang’s tenure as executive director of the department’s Children’s Services Agency.
“We are making good progress,” said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon. “The improvements we shared today are modest but real. Our focus during the brief period covered by today’s report was to develop strategies to set the stage for more rapid improvements in the months to come – particularly in the area of child safety. That progress is already occurring. We look forward to demonstrating greater improvements in outcomes for children and families during the months ahead.”
Chang took over as head of the Children’s Services Agency in May 2019. Speaking to Judge Nancy G. Edmunds of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, she highlighted progress MDHHS is making in three areas that demonstrates its commitment to improve critical child safety outcomes. She said MDHHS has:
- Eliminated a previous backlog of 1,300 Children’s Protective Services investigations when Chang came to MDHHS. The department has taken swift action by sending additional staff to county field offices, improving policy to eliminate redundancies and outdated requirements, and problem-solving weekly with county offices that were behind. As a result, backlogs were eliminated within four months.
- Taken steps to reduce maltreatment of children in foster care. Among other things, the department has created a new unit that follows up on concerns that children in care are being abused or neglected.
- Provided increased support to relative caregivers so they can keep children safe. MDHHS – which believes children are better off when they are placed with appropriate family members – now provides financial support to relative foster families even if they are not licensed.
“We know there is much more work to do,” Chang said. “We will persist in our efforts to transform our system until we are able to meet a child’s safety needs before family problems become a crisis and we will dedicate the best evidence-informed programs to support the remaining children who need the temporary protection that foster care provides.”
Michigan’s child welfare system is under federal court oversight as a result of a lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Children’s Rights in 2006. In June 2019 – five months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office – Judge Edmunds approved a new agreement that streamlined the monitoring compliance process so MDHHS could devote more resources to getting results.
Tuesday she noted issues remain to be addressed, but she said she’s been impressed by the department’s new leadership based on what she’s heard from court monitor Kevin Ryan.
“My information from Mr. Ryan is that this team that you have assembled is passionate, hardworking and really devoted to moving this case forward in a way that no prior team has,” Judge Edmunds told Gordon. “And that’s good news for the children and everyone in the state of Michigan.”
In addition to working to meet the court’s requirements, Chang said MDHHS in the last year has focused on transforming the child welfare system. She said that has included:
- Improving the process for handling reports of suspected child abuse and neglect to the state’s toll-free hotline – 855-444-3911. That means decisions about whether complaints should be investigated are more consistent.
- Investing in early intervention and prevention so that families can be assisted before children are at risk of imminent harm or need to be removed from their families. MDHHS partnered with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to analyze data to determine which families are most at risk so the department can intervene.
- Ensuring that children are placed in family-like settings whenever possible and increased monitoring of child-caring institutions where some children in foster care are placed so they are safe from harm.
- Gordon and Chang also informed the court how MDHHS has responded to a pair of crises during 2020 – the death of a child at a child-caring institution in Kalamazoo and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 16-year-old died May 1 after he was wrongfully restrained at Lakeside for Children. Since then, MDHHS has moved to revoke Lakeside’s license, eliminate the use of dangerous restraints in child-caring facilities and support family-based settings for children in care rather than large institutional facilities.
During the pandemic, MDHHS initiated a rapid review and reunification process, resulting in 432 children in care being safely reunified with their parents. While families spent more time at home due to COVID-19, MDHHS successfully contacted more than 8,000 families beginning in April who had recent CPS cases and more than 5,300 families beginning in August to provide support and resources.
MDHHS also shared with the court significant progress the Children’s Services Agency has made in improving its use of technology.
Since the last court hearing, MDHHS has developed and implemented a plan for a new information technology system that will improve the ability to track and analyze data related to cases. The department is close to awarding a contract to build the first part of the new system, which will be constructed in modules as MDHHS phases out the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (MISACWIS) that has been plagued by problems. The first module is expected to be finished by the end of 2021, with the entire project being completed within three to five years.
To view the latest federal court monitor report and other information, go to www.michigan.gov/ChildWelfareAgreement