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Understanding Trauma Key to Fixing State's Foster Care System

David Chandler (left) and Maura Corrigan (right) both were former justices on their state supreme courts and then left to work on their states' child-welfare systems. Justice Corrigan will work in Mississippi for a year to help reduce the number of children in state custody, on a grant through the Casey Foundation. Photo courtesy Administrative Office of the Courts

David Chandler (left) and Maura Corrigan (right) both were former justices on their state supreme courts and then left to work on their states' child-welfare systems. Justice Corrigan will work in Mississippi for a year to help reduce the number of children in state custody, on a grant through the Casey Foundation. Photo courtesy Administrative Office of the Courts

— Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan knows a thing or two about foster care. She also knows about leaving a state supreme court, dealing with a consent decree and working to fix a state's foster-care system in the course of four years. These are a few reasons that the Casey Foundation has sponsored a contract for Corrigan to come to Mississippi and share her knowledge.

Like Michigan, Mississippi is also under a consent decree to fix its foster-care system—and the State must fulfill several promises by year's end. Corrigan served as the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court when the then-new Gov. Ricky Snyder appointed her to run the state's foster-care system in 2011. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed former Justice David Chandler to head the state's foster-care system in December 2015.

During Corrigan's four-year tenure at its helm, the child-welfare department in Michigan decreased the number of children in the state's custody by 6,000 kids as well as delivered on 150 items in the ongoing consent decree. One of the reasons for Corrigan's and the state's success was understanding trauma.

"What we know now that we didn't know years ago in child welfare is that this trauma of removal can affect brain development of a growing child, and there's a body of work on that subject," Corrigan said March 10 at the Safe Child Conference at the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Research shows that removing a child from the home causes trauma. Older kids, Corrigan said, often run away from foster homes and back to their homes—even if the caregiver is abusive.

To understand trauma in Michigan, Corrigan said her department designed its own program and brought in the investigators who looked at child deaths in the state to help train social workers how to tell when an environment is safe.

"They went around county by county in all 83 of Michigan's counties, and they helped social workers to understand not with a checklist but with an interaction, with a human being, so they could ask questions," Corrigan said.

It was after this training that the number of kids removed from homes dropped from around 19,000 to 13,000 in Michigan.

"We had the same number of complaints. ... But by using these safety and risk-assessment techniques, we were able to stabilize children in their homes and not take away those children who are not in danger and who could have supports in their homes," Corrigan told a roomful of judges, attorneys and advocates last Friday.

The Casey Foundation and Corrigan are not going to tell Mississippi what it should do necessarily, but for the next year Corrigan plans to study and talk with major stakeholders like the still-new Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, the judicial branch and the Casey Foundation. Using those discussions, Corrigan will help pilot a social-worker training program (similar to what they used in Michigan as well as using a program called "Signs to Safety"). If the pilot works, the department could implement it statewide.

Almost 6,000 children are in the State's custody now, an increase from about a year ago when the Legislature appropriated additional funds to the new department in order to comply with the "Olivia Y" lawsuit and consent decree, which has cost the state millions of dollars over the past 14 years.

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara for breaking news.


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