DHHS Chief Gordon: Foster care should be ‘treated as a last resort’

Whitmer DHHS budget plan keeps more kids out of foster system

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget includes investments her administration says would result in fewer kids being moved into the foster care system.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would see a boost of $8.6 million, with $5.4 million coming from the state’s General Fund, to address problems that often lead to children being placed into foster care. DHHS officials say the funding would allow the department to provide services to 2,250 Michigan families.

The result, according to DHHS officials, would be better outcomes for families and less reliance on an expensive foster care system that often leads to poor outcomes for children.

“The majority of our funding right now goes into one single intervention – and it’s the most costly, it’s the most traumatizing, and it’s the most invasive intervention. And that’s foster care,” said JooYeun Chang, executive director of the Children’s Services Agency at DHHS.

DHHS Director Robert Gordon argues that using foster care as the state’s first action in dealing with at-risk children is not always necessary, and that foster placement should instead be “treated as a last resort” only.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon | Casey Hull

The federal dollars that would be unlocked with Whitmer’s budget proposal would allow DHHS to do that, by tackling the challenges that lead to foster placements in the first place.

Stacie Bladen, deputy director of Children’s Services Agency, says that three-quarters of the cases they see are neglect, not abuse. This means that in most cases, the family environment does not necessarily pose a safety threat to the child and could be greatly improved simply with services and support provided by the state.

“When we can intervene with those families and provide those supports and services that they need … we can keep kids safe, first and foremost, and we can avoid escalating and entry into foster care,” Bladen said.

As of Jan. 1, DHHS recorded 12,589 children in the state’s foster care system. This is about 900 fewer children in care than the same day last year, signaling a decrease of about 6%. Although it is the lowest number of children in foster care since 2016, Gordon says the department wants to do much better.

“The bond a child has with a parent is the most important bond of that child’s life,” Gordon said. “And when the state intervenes to take a child away from that child’s parent … most of the time, there is also great trauma associated with that removal.”

“There are cases where removal’s the only option, but that’s not the majority of cases,” he added.

Number of Michigan children in foster care | Department of Health and Human Services chart

Chang said there is research suggesting that removing low-to-moderate risk children from their homes and into the foster care system leads to worse long-term outcomes than kids who may have stayed home.

“Those are the families that we are trying to serve differently,” Chang said.

“The challenging notion…is that foster care is not an evidence-based intervention. It’s just what we’ve done historically for hundreds of years. And so, I think it has finally come to a place in child welfare where we’ve asked the question, ‘Does this work?’”

In addition to being traumatic to children, the foster care system is also extremely expensive.

The $8.6 million investment would actually save money in the long term, Gordon said, by preventing the need for so many children to be placed into that system in the first place.

Whitmer’s budget proposal estimates an $11.3 million ($5.3 million General Fund) return in savings from the investment, simply from fewer children entering the high-cost foster care system.

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New federal law 

The reason Michigan is able to make such a significant investment now is thanks to the 2018 passage of a federal law, called the federal Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA).

Before 2018, the federal government would only provide matching funds for money spent keeping kids in foster care. Federal money toward preventing the need for foster placement in the first place has always been capped.

“You get a certain amount, and once you’re done spending, it’s gone, and then you’re on your own,” Gordon said of the previous program.

But now, for the first time, FFPSA provides uncapped federal matching funds for preventive investments that can lower the prevalence of having to place children in foster care.

Whitmer’s proposed investment in such programs would start at $8.6 million in FY 2021, then “ramp up significantly” to more than $14 million in FY 2022, according to Gordon.

Bladen noted that the state already offers an array of front-end family services to prevent children from entering foster care. But since these are funded by capped grants like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that have “a finite ability to provide services,” they cannot provide services for as many families as DHHS wants to.

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“What this [new funding] allows us to do is expand that array of services by allowing us to claim for the first time Title IV-E [Foster Care] dollars from the federal government, at a rate of 50% matching to the state. And so we can do that so long as we’re serving eligible families,” Bladen said.

Gordon pointed to New York City as an example of what Michigan could achieve.

“They’ve dramatically reduced the number of kids in care without losses in safety, and that’s what we want to achieve. And the way to do it is investments, like [these] investments in the budget,” Gordon said.

Evidence-based solutions

One of FFPSA’s requirements is that a “big chunk” of its investments need to go toward evidence-based programs, meaning that there must be rigorous research on the particular intervention in question demonstrating proven positive impacts on families.

“So that’s a good thing. It drives us to invest in things that work, which is what we should be doing,” Gordon said.

He listed examples: “Programs around working with parents and children around issues with mental health, with how to handle stress and anger, with substance use challenges, with getting access to benefits and making sure you’re taking full advantage of food assistance and health insurance, with helping people negotiate our much-too-complicated social safety net.”

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Bladen added that DHHS is also looking to partner more robustly with already-existing public health services in Michigan, like the home visitation network. This allows the state to work with at-risk families early-on, and provide support and services from the start to ensure successful outcomes for new mothers and families.

“With the proposals in the governor’s budget, we can actually be much more fine-tuned in understanding if families could safely be served at home, with less trauma and actually costing us less money,” Chang said.

Looking forward

Gordon said one of his first meetings with Whitmer last winter was about children’s services.

“She’s deeply invested in the whole agenda around improving outcomes for kids,” Gordon said.

The funding in her FY 2021 budget proposal, as well as the advocacy community and agencies that partner with DHHS around the state and support these initiatives, give Gordon hope that the $8.6 million proposal will make it through the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

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“The good news from a legislative perspective is that we invest these dollars and the state gets them back,” Gordon said. “So we are hopeful that as we talk with the Legislature. … I think everyone sees that investing in prevention is the path for improving outcomes for kids.”

The Lansing-based Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) is “strongly supportive” of the effort, according to spokesman Alex Rossman.

“We know that kids face more significant challenges once they are in the foster care system, and it comes at a greater cost to them individually – it harms families by separating [kids] from their parents – and then it comes with a higher price tag to the state as well,” Rossman said.

“…There are lots of circumstances out there that we feel like shouldn’t be grounds for separating these kids from their families; that instead, it should be an opportunity to work with the parents and address whatever those issues are, but keep the family together,” he added.