The University of Michigan School of Social Work has many field placements that serve children in a variety of ways. Whether it’s the Family Assessment Clinic, Catholic Social Services, or the University of Michigan Child Protection Team, these sites work diligently to provide top-notch services to vulnerable children. Along with delivering excellent care, agencies that serve children are charged with the responsibility to follow numerous mandates, laws, and regulations. One of the biggest reports that these agencies make themselves aware of is the Modified Settlement Agreement.
In 2006, the advocacy group Children’s Rights filed a class action lawsuit against the Governor of Michigan and the Director of Human Services in an effort to reform the broken foster care system in Michigan. The complaint claimed that children in the foster care system were being neglected and abused while in state custody and that they were not receiving adequate health care. They also alleged that children were languishing in care, lacking permanency plans, and experiencing frequent changes in placements. In 2011, after two periods of being unable to meet the requirements initially set by the lawsuit, the parties went back to court and agreed on a Modified Settlement Agreement (MSA). The Department of Human Services is still under the MSA. This agreement sets requirements for things like timely access to medical and mental health care, the development and reassessment of permanency plans, worker-child visits, foster home licensing, and caseloads limits for workers. It also includes standards regarding sibling groups staying together while in foster care, overseeing the use of psychotropic medication in foster care, and a commitment to the continuity of education of children in care.
Dr. Joseph Ryan is a researcher and professor at the School of Social Work. His work focuses on the outcomes of families and children involved with the child welfare system and at least one other social service system. I interviewed Dr. Ryan to gain an expert’s perspective on the MSA and its implications for the field. He understands the difficult and complex nature of child welfare positions, and says that the easiest thing to do is to identify when someone is not doing what they need to do. “The question is, once you’ve identified the problems, what do you do next,” says Dr. Ryan. He highlighted three main approaches to reform the system. One way is to do become a frontline DHS worker and do high quality casework. Another avenue is to use research and data to determine best practices and then disseminate them. The third avenue, which the MSA falls under, is to sue the responsible entities such as State of Michigan Department of Human Services via children’s advocacy groups. Dr. Ryan stated that the MSA may be effective at getting the state and workers to meet certain measures of performance, but he’s not so sure that it equates to better outcomes for children in the system. “There is really no evidence to support that meeting specific benchmarks changes the lives of kids or the quality of the casework they’re receiving.” He also pointed out that certain best practice standards were set over twenty years ago at a time when the world of child welfare looked very different.
Dr. Ryan suggests that in order to make improvements to the system, we must first identify the problem by collecting and evaluating state data. Other states have established independent research centers that utilize important data and monitor issues of safety, permanency, and follow how kids move through the system. The formation of a child welfare evaluation and research center in Michigan could build a strong foundation for evidence-based reform.
In addition to having the opportunity to interview Dr. Ryan, I was lucky enough to hear from another expert in the field of child welfare, Kate Thorton. Kate is an LLMSW foster care and licensing supervisor at Catholic Social Services in Washtenaw County. Having done child welfare work for a number of years in a variety of states, Kate has very unique and useful insight into the field. She has seen positive effects of the MSA, some of which she believes are the reduced caseload counts for workers, increased visitation among parents, children, foster parents, and workers.
When asked what habits make an excellent child welfare caseworker, Kate had a few essential pieces of advice. “As a direct worker, the best thing you can do is to take care of the kids you’re working with. You need to make sure that their needs are met, as well taking care of the foster families too. When the foster parents are being taken care of, the kids will be moved around to new homes much less.” Kate also stated that when a worker provides high-quality service, the right people notice those efforts. “Once you establish yourself as an exceptional worker, bigger roles will be offered to you and it is in those positions that you can continue to make changes on a bigger scale.”
Regardless of the method that reform is accomplished through, whether it is via phenomenal casework, critical research, or legal advocacy, it is clear that this is challenging work. Becoming familiar with the Modified Settlement Agreement reports can provide a glimpse of the successes and challenges that are present in the child welfare system. While reading the reports, try questioning the possible reasons for certain outcomes and keep in mind issues such as safety net budget cuts and political powers at be. In addition to staying up to date on data reports, interviewing professionals in your network about their perspective related to the child welfare system can be another beneficial learning exercise. Here at the University of Michigan we have the unique privilege of being surrounded by so much knowledge, wisdom, and research. With this privilege comes the responsibility of challenging ourselves to try to better understand the immensely critical field of child welfare.