V. Alternatives to Child Foster Care

Nearly all major studies of Michigan's foster care system recommend initiatives to reduce the need for removal of children from parental homes by addressing the conditions that lead to out-of-home placements. The recommended continuum of services ranges from substance abuse counseling and employment training to remedial parenting skills instruction and more generous public assistance stipends.[28]

There is system-wide experimentation with various models of family preservation activities by both DSS (usually at the initiative of county DSS offices) and private agencies. It makes good financial sense to try to preserve families at risk of having children removed from the home due to neglect and abuse; the cost of intervention is usually much less than expensive child foster care. Earlier this year, too, seven private agencies announced their desire to deliver a comprehensive continuum of family services through a consortium called ChildNet.[29]

One such family preservation program has been studied extensively. In 1989, Michigan began experimenting with a new model of service delivery, known as "Families First." Under Families First, private agency caseworkers provide comprehensive and intensive assistance to families in which children are at imminent risk of removal for abuse and neglect. Each intervention period typically lasts from four to six weeks. A typical caseworker assigned to a Families First target family has only two active cases at a time and is on-call 24-hours, seven days per week.

A study that examined the success of Families First found that intensive intervention resulted in 16.6% fewer removals of children from natural homes for neglect/abuse 12 months after intervention, with similar results three and nine months after intervention. Ninety-eight percent of program staff, DSS and court workers who referred cases to Families First, and families who received services rated the program as either effective or extremely effective.[30]

It is more expensive to provide such intensive services ($1,936 per child) relative to foster care in the short term, but in the long run the potential cost savings from avoiding foster care placements altogether are dramatic. The University Associates' Families First evaluation concluded if 75% of at-risk children were referred to Families First, the savings to the state from foster care placement reductions could reach $36 million.[31]

But even with extraordinary efforts to preserve intact families, some home environments cannot be rendered safe from neglect and abuse of children. Even after Families First referral and intervention, 19.4% of children served by Families First still needed to be placed in foster care.[32] Thus foster care remains a crucial part of any services continuum – answering the second of the questions posed at the end of section II above.