Michigan has nowhere to send vulnerable kids as placement crisis builds

A girl who had been repeatedly beaten and raped by her father was removed from her abusive home only to spend nine days camped out on an air mattress in a courthouse.

Another child, identified as a sexual perpetrator, had to be sent back to his home and kept under constant supervision for 20 days until the courts could find a place for him to get proper care — in Utah, far from any familiar support and family.

On any given week, about 100 children are awaiting placement in Michigan. Some wait for months.

Michigan probate judges call it a crisis. They joined together in a resolution, sent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in September, citing the "critical shortage of available placements" for children who have been abused and neglected or who are a danger to themselves or others. It says “virtually every county in the state of Michigan” is facing this issue.

The Midwest lacks enough resources to adequately provide mental health services to young people in crisis. As they wait, many wait for beds at emergency rooms around the state, including at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Emergency Department in Grand Rapids.
The Midwest lacks enough resources to adequately provide mental health services to young people in crisis. As they wait, many wait for beds at emergency rooms around the state, including at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Emergency Department in Grand Rapids.

Michigan’s most vulnerable children have no place to go

The unconventional resolution, written by the entire leadership of the Michigan Probate Judges Association, "implores the governor of the state of Michigan, the executive branch and the Legislature to take immediate action to address this critical issue to stabilize and rectify the placement shortage within the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system."

“Our legislators need to understand that we can’t wait any longer,” said Judge T. J. Ackert, a Kent County probate judge who presides over both child welfare and juvenile justice cases. “We’re just asking everyone to recognize the crisis and act.”

When it’s too dangerous or unhealthy for children to remain in their homes, probate judges find temporary solutions, placing youths somewhere physically safe where they can ideally heal from trauma and receive mental health care and various therapies.

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The state runs one center for this express purpose, and licenses or contracts with about 70 other child-caring institutions that work with developmentally disabled and mentally ill youths, victims of trafficking and abuse, juvenile offenders and others.

But increasingly, these judges are coming up short. Through a cumbersome and decentralized system, judges and their staffs make phone calls and send emails to try to find openings for children who have nowhere else to go.

The answer they keep getting: We can’t take them.

Children waiting for months for safe placements

Instead, judges and their staff resort to simply keeping kids physically safe while they await placement.

“If you looked at July of 2021, it was rare that you had to wait to place a child in residential treatment,” said Ackert. “As of the end of August, 43% of the children waiting for placement in Kent County had to wait 90 or more days. That’s 90 days when we can’t have treatment for them.”

Judge Julia Owdziej, a probate judge in Washtenaw County, tried for 78 days to find a placement for a young man detained for armed robbery. She couldn’t find a spot for him, and eventually turned him over to DHHS so it could identify a secure placement. He remained in detention while the state took another 125 days to find one.

With no placement options in Michigan, one 17-year-old had waited in detention for four months before being sent out of state. So, when he violated his probation and returned to his old stomping grounds, Owdziej kept the youth in jail because she knew there would be nowhere else to send him. Nine days after she made the decision to let him out, he was shot in the head and killed.

“I know on Sept. 24th, 2021, that kid would have been alive if I had somewhere to put him,” Owdziej said. “But I didn’t. I had nowhere to place the kid. I knew he was playing with guns. I knew he was going to die or kill someone. I knew it. I had nothing to give that child.”

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Skyrocketing mental health needs collide with COVID-19 staffing shortages

Michigan’s placement crisis has been building slowly, but has snowballed recently.

Due in part to vacancies and staffing shortages fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, some residential treatment centers with the space to accommodate more children do not have adequate staffing, so are operating below capacity.

The Department of Health and Human Services contracts for 897 beds within the state to provide care and treatment. As of the beginning of September, fewer than 500 of those beds were actually available. DHHS did not confirm those numbers.

“I have two youths that right now I’m frantically trying to find a location for because the facilities are closing,” said Melissa Ransom, a district judge in Missaukee County who was recently notified that staffing issues were forcing two more residential centers to shut their doors.

Centers around the state began to close after the April 2020 death of 16-year-old foster child Cornelius Frederick, who went into cardiac arrest on the cafeteria floor of the residential treatment center he was living in after being physically restrained by staff for more than 10 minutes. Michigan has since outlawed the use of restraints in youth facilities.

Two youth residential treatment centers in Detroit closed in July amid allegations employees abused residents physically and emotionally. The Detroit Behavioral Institute, which ran the centers and whose licenses are currently in suspension by the state, had to relocate 66 youths to other facilities.

In Wayne County, the juvenile jail operates under a "temporary disaster" plan because of persistent staffing shortages. A Free Press investigation last month disclosed the state-approved plan, which relaxed staffing and lockdown rules.

Wayne County commissioners called for "drastic" and quick action to address the problems, which include complaints that youths have been confined to their rooms, sometimes for days, and get only sporadic recreation time and showers.

Judges face limited options

“We used to have the ability to really pick and chose which facility we would place in,” Ransom said. A team of service providers, juvenile justice workers, counselors and others would work together to determine which placement would be the best fit for the child, taking background, trauma assessments, psychological evaluations and more into account.

In today’s placement crisis, Ransom says they just try to find any open bed.

"I'm just trying to keep them safe at this point,” she said.

DHHS is “working quickly to get these facilities back to full staff levels,” according to Public Information Officer Bob Wheaton. But staffing a residential treatment center with qualified personnel is challenging in the best of times. Employees could get paid the same hourly wage working in a retail store or fast-food restaurant with a lot less stress and without the risk of being physically assaulted.

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Children's needs are greater than ever

Michigan has two state-operated juvenile justice facilities that offer rehabilitation services, neither of which is operating at full capacity. The state used to run eight facilities where children could be placed if no foster care or in-home option was appropriate due to their mental or emotional needs. Now, just one remains.

That facility, Hawthorn Center, is taking in patients whose collective needs are greater than ever. DHHS’s five-year capital outlay plan for 2023-27 states that in recent years, Hawthorn Center’s patients have presented with “increased symptoms of severe mental illness, extreme behaviors, co-morbid developmental conditions, profound deficits in functional communication skills, and (more complicated) medical conditions.”

Judge Cheryl Hill, a Marquette County probate judge, noticed the same shifts in children whose cases have come across her docket. “Our youth today are not the youth that we had two, three, four years ago,” she said. “COVID did something to our juveniles, whether they are abuse-and-neglect kids or delinquents, we’re not dealing with the same children that we’ve dealt with in the past.”

'We’re seeing children that are very, very damaged'

The changes among patients are one reason stays at Hawthorn Center have increased 35% in the last five years, from an average of 90 days in the 2015-16 fiscal year to about 122 days in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Sending children to residential treatment facilities is typically the last resort. Nevertheless, youths continue to need those placements as the number of available beds have decreased. Hill thinks the levels of trauma children have experienced are part of the issue. “We’re seeing children that are very, very damaged, and normal foster homes are having trouble keeping them,” she said.

The state lost 400 licensed foster care and group homes in 2021 and only added 49. Hill says recruiting new foster families has been extremely difficult, in part because of the low rates Michigan pays foster families. On Oct. 1, the per diem maintenance payments increased by 20% to $22.70. It was the first time the rate had increased in a decade.

The resolution cites “a net loss of 716 available foster group home beds; and that 172 contracted abuse-and-neglect beds and 96 juvenile justice beds have closed in Michigan, due to the lack of proper funding, shortage in staffing, trained personnel and liability risks.”

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DHHS is 'working diligently' to place children

Juvenile justice and treatment experts such as the Michigan Sheriff's Association, the Mental Health Association in Michigan and the Michigan Association for Family Court Administration also collaborated on a letter they sent to Whitmer and DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel on Oct. 3.

That letter cited the "critical lack of both short-term local detention resources and out-of-home placement opportunities for our highest-risk youth." The co-signers wrote, "We believe this has created a system-wide crisis, one that has resulted due to the inclusion of 17-year-olds in the justice system and the closing of both state and private treatment beds in Michigan."

They also decried the fact that youths were being housed for months in short-term detention facilities meant to hold them for days or weeks. Some, they felt, pose a danger to staff and other residents in those centers, and take up spaces needed for newly arrested juveniles. They documented a lack of responsiveness on the part of DHHS.

"Despite the efforts of local courts, counties, and other stakeholders, the issue continues to go unresolved," they wrote.

The probate judges who drafted the resolution said they have been raising concerns over the placement crisis since August 2021. Although they have had extended meetings with representatives from DHHS to address it, they say the department must act more quickly.

“We’re not pointing the finger at anyone,” said Ackert. “The executive branch knows what is happening. The legislative branch knows what is happening. And they’re trying to look at this issue. But we had to stop talking.”

Opening up more beds in Michigan so children can at least stay in the state is an important goal. That would allow parents and families to be part of the treatment process and remove the need to pay for them to visit children who’ve been placed as far away as California. One of the most important fixes would be making sure employees of residential facilities are paid enough to stay in their jobs, according to Hill.

In the long term, Ackert said an overall greater emphasis on addressing youth mental health needs was crucial.

The judges who wrote the resolution understand that DHHS is bound by the pace of legislation and budgeting. “And they’re working on it,” Hill said. “They are trying to secure more dollars.”

Spending is intended to address mental health needs

Whitmer’s 2023 budget includes $325 million for mental health, much of which will be used to construct a new state psychiatric hospital in Northville to replace the aging Hawthorn Center and nearly double the number of youths the state can serve.

DHHS says it shares the judges' concerns about the limited treatment options and is working to address them. Wheaton wrote that the new budget provides the resources DHHS needs to resolve the backlog of children waiting for placements.

“This funding will expand access to residential placements by increasing payments to facilities so that they can hire additional staff and provide greater care to more children,” he wrote.

He says the department distributed $6.2 million to child-caring institutions this spring and plans to provide $25 million in one-time pandemic relief aid to about 30 centers. With another $25 million in supplemental funding, the state is increasing the per-child rates it provides to these institutions for fiscal 2023 — doubling it in some cases. Staff at these centers will continue to receive the $2 per-hour pay increase they got last year.

Wheaton also pointed to system-level efforts the department is making to expand behavioral health services and address shortages.

For the judges, it remains to be seen how quickly these allocations will result in more open beds for more needy kids.

“We're very frustrated because we've been saying things over and over and over again,” said Tuscola County Judge Nancy Thane. “It's been a year now that we've been talking about this. It's time for us to stop talking. Something has to happen. Something needs to be done.”

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Reach her at jbrookland@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan judges can't find places to keep abused children safe