Government and Nonprofits

County eyes first performance-based child welfare system

‘Precarious’ housing can end with kids in foster care, or worse — homelessness.

June 5, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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The first-of-its-kind performance-based child welfare system in Michigan will be considered by Kent County commissioners at their meeting this week.

The county’s Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with the 17th District Court, Network180 and five private agencies to create the system, aimed at helping families in a “precarious” housing situation where the children may be at risk of removal to foster care by court order.

“Precarious” housing generally means a family is doubled up with another family or families.

In some cases, the disintegration of the family may lead to homelessness before the local government can get involved.

As part of the proposed pilot project, the state passed PA 0520 of 2014 to streamline funding between DHHS and the county. It also created a $1.7 million annual investment in the provision of in-home services for families.

Matthew VanZetten, business analyst for human services in Kent County administration, told the County’s Finance and Physical Resources Committee the goal is to do a better job of keeping children out of the child welfare system.

Children may be removed by Child Protective Services when substantiated complaints are received about them living in “a precariously housed situation with individuals that have a history of abuse/neglect or domestic violence,” according to county documents.

County officials were advised there is no program or funding available to relocate families into a safe housing situation.

The Kent County Essential Needs Task Force and its Coalition to End Homelessness, involving the DHHS, the Court and several private social services agencies, has been meeting to look at potential solutions to the problem.

One decision was to use the local Housing Access Program, which is run by Booth Family Services, part of The Salvation Army, to do a housing assessment and then partner with a housing agency to provide housing and case management. Booth’s partner in the pilot project will be Community Rebuilders.

VanZetten told the Business Journal the state required that if DHS staff worked to help families in precarious housing situations, the cost was completely covered by the state of Michigan and the federal government. However, if a county used a private agency to do the work, the county had to provide the funding.

“We had advocated that needed change,” said VanZetten. “It should not matter if a case is managed by a private agency or the public sector. They should be funded by the state of Michigan.”

He said the policy led some counties to not use private agencies at all because of the financial disincentive.

“Outcomes should drive care, not the financial incentive or disincentive. Whoever performs it better should serve the kids and it should not be about who pays,” said VanZetten.

The main change reflected by the Kent County pilot project is the redirection of existing state funding spent by the county on foster care services. The new concept is to relocate families into a safe housing situation where the children are able to remain with the biological parents.

The pilot project will not require any increase in taxes; $400,000 is already available in the county’s 2015 DHHS Childcare Fund budget, and $600,000 will be available for the 2016 budget. Childcare Fund expenditures are reimbursed 50 percent by the state of Michigan.

VanZetten said the metrics for determining the performance are still being worked out, but he said there are essentially two metrics: whether or not the children are able to remain with their parents, and whether or not they experience any homelessness during the family’s problems.

VanZetten said it is hard to determine how many families in Kent County might now be in a precarious housing situation.

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