Officials dismiss report that says lax procedures put foster kids in danger.
Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News
The Michigan Department of Human Services' standards for investigating child abuse are lax, allow for vague findings and place the state's 19,000 foster children in danger, according to a new report commissioned by a group seeking court-ordered reform of the state's foster care system.
Michigan's child welfare program is riddled with problems, including overloaded case workers, overcrowded foster homes and rules that allow foster children to be placed with relatives who are dangerous, according to the report that analyzed nearly 10,000 documents related to the deaths of five children in Michigan foster homes. The 75-page report also points to numerous management problems, including a decentralized agency with staff members who have little understanding about the fundamentals of child welfare.
State officials scoffed at the report, which was paid for by Children's Rights.
"These reports lack balance, overstate and generalize findings from a biased, non-representative sample of cases to support the Children's Rights agenda," spokeswoman Maureen Sorbet said in a statement. "These same parties provided similar reports in litigation in other states and, as such, only represent one side of the case and a limited perspective on Michigan's child welfare system."
The reports say the state was directly responsible for some of the child deaths and failed to rescue other children living in dangerous foster homes.
"What's really striking and frankly horrifying is that the report gives us a tip of an iceberg of children taken into the care of Michigan's foster care system -- five kids who died because of poor efforts to surround them with the proper services and a safety net," said Sara Bartosz, an attorney for Children's Rights, a New York-based advocacy organization that has filed a class action lawsuit against the state. "It shows a history of a management that has seen holes in a safety net but even after children have died have not fixed and mended that safety net."
This is the third report in a week issued by Children's Rights. A court-appointed expert did the first report. But Monday's report and one released late Friday were commissioned by Children's Rights as the organization prepares to go to trial in June.
Authored by John Goad, an Illinois-based consultant and child welfare expert, Monday's report is an analysis of management and practices of the state foster care system. Goad studied state documents related to the cases of five children who died in the state's care, including 2-year-old Isaac Lethbridge, who was killed in a Detroit foster home in 2006, and 3-year-old James Earl Bradley Jr., who was murdered in a Van Buren Township home in 2007
Child abuse and neglect investigators do not yield enough evidence and "often make determinations that are not consistent with the facts," according to the report. As an example, the report points to the death of James, which a coroner ruled a homicide and physician said likely resulted from child abuse. But the Michigan Department of Human Services investigation showed that there was not a preponderance of evidence to support child abuse, a conclusion the report called "entirely inconsistent with facts and ridiculous."
The department also failed to thoroughly investigate burns on the toddler's hand before he died.
"By failing to quickly and thoroughly investigate this complaint, (the state) may well have missed its opportunity to save James's life," the report said.
The caseworker for Isaac was juggling between 37 and 46 cases -- well beyond the state maximum caseload of 30 children.
It also showed that Isaac was placed in two foster homes that together were targeted in 16 complaints. Though only two of the complaints were substantiated, the report cited four complaints that should have been substantiated and seven complaints that were so poorly investigated it was unclear what the outcome should have been. These poorly investigated complaints, the report said, failed to make contact with obvious people with information such as treating doctors.
"Had these investigations been handled competently, Isaac would not have been beaten, burned and murdered in a (state) foster home," the report said.
You can reach Kim Kozlowski at (313) 222-2024.
State assailed on child welfare