Judge: Reports on state's child welfare 'depressing'

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — Michigan’s new governor has inherited a troubled child-welfare system that has failed to protect foster kids from abuse and operates with a faulty computer network that might need to be scrapped after just five years, experts reported this week.

A judge got an update on a case that is far from over, despite 13 years of litigation and $27 million spent on court-appointed monitors and lawyers to try to fix how the state cares for children who are removed from homes because of abuse and neglect.

“It’s pretty depressing to say the least,” U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said of the reports.

It was the first hearing since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in January and installed a new team at the Department of Health and Human Services, known as DHHS. The child-welfare system has made progress in certain areas, such as faster adoptions and the return of children to their families, but it remains under court oversight with no quick exit possible.

The department under Gov. Jennifer Granholm was sued in 2006 on behalf of thousands of kids who were trapped in a cycle of physical and emotional abuse due to
unfit foster families, miserable group homes and a lack of action by the state.

A deal to make improvements withered in 2010 just as Rick Snyder was elected governor.

Court-appointed monitors reported some success during the Snyder administration. But the latest report, which covers data from 2017, is a clear setback. Nearly 12,400 children, most of them living with foster families or relatives, were under the state’s supervision by the end of that year.

The report said 1,270 children experienced repeated incidents of abuse or neglect. Children were being placed in homes without beds or where guns and ammunition were not properly stored, “many years after the monitoring team raised this as an issue at the highest levels” of the department.

“The problem remains unfixed,” monitor Eileen Crummy told the judge.

Robert Gordon, the new director at DHHS, acknowledged the findings and said, “They are not acceptable.”

“We will not defend what we cannot defend. ... The stories in the report are deeply upsetting,” Gordon said.

He said 2019 “can be a turning point,” although he quickly added: “I know you have heard this song before.”

Edmunds said the child-welfare system had made gains under director Maura Corrigan but apparently retreated under Snyder’s second director, Nick Lyon. She suggested Lyon’s attention might have been “diverted” by “other challenges.” He faces an involuntary manslaughter charge in the Flint water crisis.

The department and an advocacy group that filed the 2006 lawsuit, Children's Rights, agree that data are extremely crucial to measuring any progress by the state’s Children’s Services Agency. But the computer system, called MiSACWIS, is deeply flawed and might have to be replaced, an expert said in a separate report.

The network, which was rolled out in 2014, generates an “unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents, and data fixes that are likely to persist indefinitely,” Kurt Heisler wrote.

The judge said the state needs to “fish or cut bait” — fix MiSACWIS or pull the plug. Edmunds wants an update at the next hearing, June 27.

DHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said the department recognizes the problems with MiSACWIS.

“The court has given us until June 27 to determine the appropriate next steps,” Wheaton said. “We will take that time to do so.”