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With Differential Response, History Repeats Itself and Children are Placed at Unnecessary Risk

By Frank Vandervort

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Credit: University of Michigan Law School Frank Vandervort

Michigan, like other states, struggles to keep abused and neglected children safe while controlling the number of children in foster care, which is costly. Our law and policy attempt to balance the protection of maltreated children (the paramount consideration), respect for parents’ rights to raise their children, and the state’s interest in keeping children safe, all with too little money.

Over two decades of representing maltreated children, I have seen that this process places disproportionate and unfair burdens on these youngsters.

For much of the 1990s I was a staff attorney at a legal aid organization in Detroit representing children in protection proceedings. During most of that time, our governor, a conservative Republican, and his appointed director of our human services agency (DHS), ran a program of intensive family preservation called Families First, which sought to save money by reducing the number of children placed in foster care.

It was not unusual for Families First caseworkers to come to court and testify that they were providing “in-home” services to a family at a local fast food restaurant or public library. When asked why the services were not being provided at the parents’ home, the workers would answer that the home was too dangerous for them to enter because of violence between adults, drug sales, or the presence of guns. Then they would testify that the children they were charged with protecting, often infants and toddlers, should remain in the home rather than being placed in foster care. The Families First program viewed foster care placement as more problematic than abusive or neglectful parenting. Keeping children out of foster care was considered success, even if they lived in squalid, patently abusive or neglectful conditions.

Today, a Families First-like program, Differential Response (DR), is being touted as a way of keeping children out of the foster care system. DR is a duel track system that, like the intensive family preservation efforts of twenty years ago, goes to extraordinary lengths to keep children with their parents. It postulates that if state authorities only “engaged” families properly, abuse and neglect would disappear. The mission of the Casey Family Programs, DR’s greatest supporter, is to eliminate foster care placement, and the foundation, it seems, is willing to leave children at an unacceptable risk of harm to meet that goal.

Twice recently—once by the legislature and another time by Casey Family Programs - Michigan’s DHS has been pressured into evaluating whether to launch a DR program aimed specifically at reducing the number of minority children in our foster care system.

Fortunately for all Michigan children, DHS concluded, after reviewing fifteen research studies evaluating the DR model, that “there is little or no evidence to support that dual-track response results in a decrease in minority maltreatment rates  . . . a reduction in out of home placement rates . . . or an improvement in safety or well-being for minority children.” The workgroup also assessed DR’s impact on non-minority children, concluding that: “there appears to be no change in out-of-home removal rates and no overall cost savings to the state,” when DR is utilized.

Conservatives like these programs because they hope to save money, liberals because they minimize government intervention into families and because they often think child protection is simply an attack on poor and minority parents. Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet calls this right-left convergence “the unholy alliance.”

For now, “the unholy alliance” in Michigan has been held at bay. But the forces that would shift the risk of child maltreatment onto the shoulders of its young victims by implementing overly aggressive family preservation programs like DR are persistent. They’ll be back again.

Frank Vandervort is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan whose primary interests include juvenile justice, child welfare, and interdisciplinary practice. Vandervort is the president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and serves as a consultant to Trauma Informed Child Welfare Systems, a federally funded training and technical assistance program.

TAGS: Alternative Response, Casey Family Programs, Differential Response, Emergency Family Preservation, Families First, family preservation, Intensive Family Preservation, Michigan

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