SETTLEMENT: Agreement Reached on Children's Rights, Foster Care
February 3, 2016
By: Dave Rogers
A lawsuit filed 10 years ago against the State of Michigan appears to be resulting in improved care of children in foster care.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Children's Rights, a national advocacy organization, have reached a modified settlement agreement that acknowledges progress in reforming Michigan foster care and focuses attention on improving critical areas to assure child safety and well-being.
There are 13,000 children in foster care in Michigan and another 3,000 for which placement is sought, state officials said.
Children's Rights, along with co-counsel Ned Leibensperger, Kevin Bolan and McDermott Will & Emery LLC, filed this case against the Governor of the state of Michigan and the Director of the Department of Human Services (DHS) on behalf of all children who are now or will be in the foster care custody of DHS.
The Complaint alleged certain unlawful policies and practices of the defendants, including the maltreatment or neglect of children while in state foster care custody, a lack of basic medical and mental health services for children in foster care, excessive lengths of stay in state custody, and frequent moves among multiple placements.
Dwayne B., one of six named plaintiffs at the time the complaint was filed, was 7 years old at filing and had been moved between 15 different foster care placements since entering the legal custody of DHS in 2001 as a toddler.
The court case alleges as a result of the emotional harm caused by these many moves and DHS's failure to provide him with necessary services, Dwayne's behavior severely deteriorated to the point that he hit himself and others, harmed animals, set fires, and destroyed property.
The new agreement, filed today in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, is pared back from the 2011 agreement, due to DHHS's success during the past five years in improving various areas of agency performance. For example, the state has cut the number of kids waiting to be adopted, is safely reunifying more children with their birth families, and has implemented an effective training program for caseworkers.
"The state deserves kudos for its considerable efforts to give kids permanent, loving families," said Sara Bartosz, senior attorney for Children's Rights. "These accomplishments show that reform is possible when the state makes it a priority. There is good cause for optimism as the hard work continues."
The modified agreement focuses on vital areas in which DHHS still must improve performance. These areas include reducing caseworker caseloads, increasing visits between caseworkers and children, maintaining sibling relationships, recruiting foster homes, licensing kinship homes, improving access to medical care and overseeing the use of psychotropic medications.
"Both parties know that more work is needed, and we view it as a positive that we've come to terms on how to get it done," said Bartosz. "There is an energy and focus coming out of the negotiations that should propel future reform and, in turn, keep Michigan's children safe in foster care."
Children's Rights filed the child welfare reform class action, now known as Dwayne B. v. Snyder, in August 2006, with Edward Leibensperger of the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and Michigan-based law firm Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton. The case settled in 2008 and the first modified settlement agreement was reached in 2011.