III. Pressures on Michigan's Child Foster Care System

Table 2

How long a child remains in out-of-home foster care depends on a number of factors, including the seriousness of problems in the child's home, a child's emotional and behavior problems, and adoption rates. The average length of time neglected children had been in the foster care system was 30 months as of October l, 1983, and 28 months as of October 1, 1989. The average length of time neglected children had been in their current placements was 18 months as of October l, 1983, and 16 months as of October 1, 1989.

In 1990, several county-based social workers testified to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Social Services that their excessive workloads make it impossible to provide sufficient care and supervision to foster care children.

Although the average duration for all placements has declined slightly, children under age 6 are entering the system at much higher rates than is true for other ages. The total number of children in the foster care system increased by 52% from October l, 1983, to October 1, 1989, with the increase in those ages 0-6 increasing 75%; ages 7-11, 48.5%; and ages 12 and over, 36.1%. Moreover, African-American and female children are entering the system at much higher rates than males or children of other races.[13]

Nearly half (47%) of the children currently in specialized foster care had a prior foster family placement, and 37.6% of the children in regular foster care also had a prior foster family placement. However, while 22% of the children in specialized foster care had a prior institutional care experience (suggesting that at the point of first protective intervention by DSS they were judged to be too difficult to benefit from foster care), only 4% of the children in regular foster care had previously been placed in institutional care before their current foster care placement.[14]

Because intensive institutional care is used almost exclusively for the most aggressive, emotionally troubled and older children, specialized foster care has become a substitute for institutional care and has placed new pressures on the system. Some would argue that the recent increase in the use of specialized foster care as an alternative to the far more expensive and restrictive institutional care system – an increase dictated by the changing profiles of many children – may explain why children are not moving more smoothly from foster care placements to permanent homes.

In 1989, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency conducted an extensive study of Michigan's foster care system. The study included a survey asking both DSS and private agency caseworkers what had contributed to the rise in specialized foster care caseloads. Both sectors said that children's problems are now far more severe and families are more dysfunctional than in the past. In this context, it was generally acknowledged by survey respondents that, even though children placed in specialized foster care are similar to those placed in institutional care in the past, foster care can, if properly managed, offer appropriate services at costs much lower than in a public or private institutional care setting.[15]

Providing foster care services is an extremely stressful undertaking for personnel in both public and private sectors and at all levels of service delivery, from front-line licensed foster care families through top-level administrators. Foster families face daily stresses related to the special needs and behavior problems of children entrusted to their care. They also face problems related to state regulation and licensing. Undocumented or even anonymous allegations by neighbors, natural parents or other individuals can result in the rapid, even overnight, transfer of foster children to another provider and/or revocation of a foster care license. The frequency of such actions is accelerating. One DSS official told the Detroit Free Press that in all of 1992, there had been about 90 such actions, while the department had proposed 110 such actions in the first quarter of 1993 alone.[16]

While the state has a compelling interest in weeding out poor providers and protecting children from abuse or neglect in foster homes, legal fees associated with fighting spurious charges are often beyond the reach of foster families, and the upheaval caused by frequent displacement of foster children is detrimental to continuity of care. Because of such stresses, approximately 25% of Michigan's estimated 7,700 foster families leave the system annually, to be replaced by new licensed foster families.[17]

Similar stresses face DSS foster care workers. In 1990, several county-based social workers testified to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Social Services that their excessive workloads make it impossible to provide sufficient care and supervision to foster care children. One county DSS director told committee members that several case-workers on her staff had asked for demotions to clerical positions because they couldn't handle casework demands.[18]

Top DSS officials responsible for foster care and budget administration understand these problems and are trying to remedy them. In 1990, DSS confirmed the frustrations expressed by county-based DSS foster care workers. DSS reported that movement of staff out of foster care was too high. From October 1, 1988 to February 3, 1990, Wayne County lost 38% of its staff (60 of 157), and DSS suffered a statewide 28% loss in staff (100 of 359). In addition, foster care licensing reports indicated problems in the quality of service due to heavy workloads – monthly visits to children in foster care were not always made – and service plans and reports were late, incomplete or poorly done.

There have, of course, been widely publicized, even tragic, problems in child foster care service delivery.[19] These are not exclusively the fault of state government, the judicial branch, or private child care agencies, but are chiefly the result of conditions which now present the system with many children whose problems are often far more complex and intractable than previously.

Table 2 indicates that private agencies have also had significant staff turnover.

However, despite staff losses during the time period studied, private sector agencies experienced net increases in staff available to provide direct field services in foster care. Overall, private agencies added 114 new social work practitioners and 131 new child care workers. By contrast, DSS suffered a net loss in field staff serving foster care cases. A loss of trained staff continues to plague DSS.

Further increasing the number of children supervised directly by DSS would require a substantial increase in staff and a concerted effort to reduce staff turnover to provide adequate care and attention to children in foster care. In 1990, DSS noted that its goals for family and child services staffing ratios are 30:1 (clients/staff) when services are delivered by DSS employees; 90:1 when services are directly purchased from private agencies; and 100:1 when services are licensed to private agencies.[20]

Historically, the 30:1 goal has proved elusive. In 1989, DSS reported to private agencies that DSS needed 432 more staff to meet the 30:1 objective. By 1990, the shortfall in the number of staff needed grew to 507.[21] As recently as November, 1992, DSS was still 159 employees short of its 30:1 target.[22] Public child foster care in Michigan has thus consistently failed to achieve the 25:1 caseload ratios considered optimal by most accreditation agencies.

Meeting the 30:1 Ratio Standard

The DSS staff number increase required to meet the optimal 30:1 ratio:





November 1992


On the other hand, most private agencies met or exceeded both the 30:1 and 25:1 ratios during 1989 and 1990.[23] More recent analysis of private agency caseloads indicate a current ratio of from 19:1 to 23:1 in regular foster care and from 12:1 to 14:1 in specialized foster care.[24]

There is also an important intangible aspect to private provision of child foster care services. Many private agencies view their participation in the system as a "ministry." Periodic revenue shortfalls have often been absorbed by these agencies when state reimbursements have failed to fully cover costs. Unreimbursed costs have not caused such agencies to refuse children. Instead, new placements have been financed out of private donations and, in some cases, income from carefully managed endowments.

Over the past eight years, no fewer than six blue-ribbon panels have studied Michigan's foster care system and made recommendations for improvements.[25] Legislators, judges, child welfare advocates and public and private caseworkers are committed to providing services to meet the special needs of neglected and abused children without having to revert to the old pattern of regular foster care or institutional care with no viable option in between. Despite the levels of frustration and turnover rates, public and private sector child care workers believe the foster care system can be improved.

Most regular and specialized foster care is now contracted by the State to private agencies. As noted above, private agencies service 63% of regular foster care placements and 73% of specialized foster care placements. This partnership has been in place for decades, and private agencies are continually adding, training, and motivating professional staff to meet the new challenges faced by children with more difficult needs. Nevertheless, an argument has surfaced that foster care is not working, that it is too costly, and that the state can better address social problems by removing private child care agencies from the process and directing funds toward alternatives to foster care. This argument is often advanced most vigorously by public sector union representatives.

Could the state save money by removing the private sector from the foster care process, freeing up funds for alternative programs? This requires us to answer two questions. First, what does it cost for the state to provide child foster care and how does that compare to private agency payment rates? Second, to what extent is foster care a needed part of any care continuum?