Sandbox Party: An election year for kids

August 24, 2010
Photo of Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Thursday, the Sandbox Party will hold its conference to mobilize a broad range of stakeholders to support a coherent system of early care and education in Michigan.  The League is proud to be a supporter of this important event, designed to draw candidates’ attention to the needs of children.

An early care and education system would assure that children are born healthy; that they thrive and develop on track without suffering from untreated health conditions or avoidable developmental delay;  that they enter the K-12 system ready to succeed; and that they can read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

This goal is also the very first  strategy recommended  in the Early Warning report (pdf) recently issued by the Casey Foundation. It presented four recommendations  to increase the share of fourth graders proficient in reading.

In Michigan (pdf) only three of every 10 fourth-graders could read proficiently by the fourth grade, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Children who can read proficiently by fourth grade are prepared to learn by reading as they advance academically.  Those without at least a modest skill level will be at high risk of being retained in grade and dropping out of school.

In reality all of us are stakeholders in this Sandbox effort as the state struggles to move forward economically and to increase the educational attainment of more residents so they can compete in the global economy.  By 2018 estimates suggest that two of every three jobs in Michigan will require training or education beyond high school.   

Right now we’re still trying to make sure more youth complete their high school education, particularly low-income and minority youth.  The first step to reaching that goal will require making sure that more children have what they need in early childhood to prepare them to be lifelong learners. 

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell

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State government unraveling?

July 6, 2010

Sharon Parks

State government is unraveling.  At least that was my impression after reading the subscriber-only Gongwer News Service report from Friday.  The newsletter included an extensive piece about Michigan’s progress under a court settlement related to foster care.

According to the article, the most recent official report on the lawsuit settlement stated, “thousands of children continue to linger in care without permanent families; too many youth continue to age out of care without health care or a permanent home; and too many children remain in unlicensed relative homes.”

The report said the Department of Human Services did not have enough staff to meet the caseload ratio standards required in the 2008 settlement.

A veteran child protective services worker told Gongwer that workers are “so stressed they regularly have breakdowns and you find them crying in the bathroom.”  Low job satisfaction has resulted in increased leaves for stress and higher turnover rates, which were already high prior to the lawsuit.

The Granholm administration has attempted to address this problem by recommending the restoration of 197 staff positions cut last year, the addition of 500 new staff and retaining the temporary staff brought in to help meet the requirements of the lawsuit.  Unfortunately the Department of Human Services Senate Appropriations Subcommittee is only willing to commit to 151 new child protective services workers.

Foster care is not the only area in which the Department of Human Services is not keeping up.  Another article in the same Gongwer issue notes that the average eligibility specialist carries a caseload of 700, again leading to burnout and frustration on the part of workers and clients.  Safety in local DHS office continues to be a concern yet DHS officials, according to Gongwer, say staffing increases are not likely since funds for staffing are stagnant.

There’s more…..A third article reports that financial audits released by the Auditor General show that several departments need to improve their internal controls to ensure they are correctly monitoring spending.  The Department of Natural Resources needs to properly account for and process reservation fees from state parks and forests.  The Department of Education was urged to take steps to protect its security and financial data, and to periodically monitor its internal controls over financial issues.  The State Police was urged to improve its internal controls over payroll processing.

These three articles all point to an increasingly common theme throughout state government—not enough workers to do the work, at least not in a way that ensures safety and well-being, as well as accountability for public tax dollars.

Just something to think about as another state retirement plan is discussed and candidates on the campaign trail promise smaller government.

— Sharon Parks


Getting health reform right the first time

June 29, 2010

Jan Hudson

Policymakers in Michigan will soon have key decisions to make as health reform implementation progresses. Will they choose to do it right the first time, or follow their current strategy of remedial public policy?

When programs require a financial investment, policymakers say the state has no money to invest, and yet there are always funds to cover remedial services. Will the current approach of cutting programs in the name of fiscal restraint only to fund those necessary services in higher-cost settings be their guide?

For example, children are eligible for Medicaid or MIChild, but are not aware or enrolled because outreach funds and efforts have been eliminated. They are then treated in hospital emergency rooms instead of doctors offices. Or, Medicaid services are eliminated “to save funds” and untreated illnesses become life-threatening, resulting in intensive care stays that could have been avoided.

Early childhood and education programs have been cut or weakened through continued state disinvestment. A Casey Foundation report ranks Michigan ranks 34th among the 50 states in children who are proficient at reading by the end of third grade. Colleges then spend considerable time and cost on remedial education to correct the deficiencies.

Community mental health services are inadequately funded and were severely cut in this budget year. This means services are not provided until a crisis occurs, resulting at times with a person entering the corrections system. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy recently called for more aggressive mental health, preschool and drug treatment funding.

Federal health care reform presents the opportunity to make dramatic changes in the health care system and the way it’s delivered, defined and funded. A key question is: Will policymakers take advantage of these opportunities — pass needed legislation, and provide the necessary funding and staff for a successful implementation, or will they try to “do more with less” and skate by on the cheap?

If policymakers choose the short-sighted approach in the name of fiscal restraint  then we cannot expect to see the full potential of improvements to the current systems and health outcomes. It is critical that they acknowledge the need for additional resources and supporting public policy so that health reform implementation can be done right the first time.

We can pay now, we can pay later – or both. Will health care reform be more of the same, or will it be implemented right the first time?

— Jan Hudson


Reading before fourth grade matters

May 18, 2010

Judy Putnam

Children who cannot read by the end of third grade cannot succeed. As they get older, they tend to drop out of school, pushing good-paying jobs beyond their reach. We’re writing the scripts of their lives by the age of 9 and they don’t have happy endings.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new national KIDS COUNT report, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters is out today, and it’s a must-read reminder about the importance of reading by the end of third grade.

The report’s major message is that children are learning to read until the ages of 8 and 9. After that they read to learn. Children without that essential skill quickly fall behind.

Michigan does not look good in this report. We rank 34th among the states on reading proficiency among fourth-graders as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s a rigorous test given in each state to a sample of students. 

In Michigan, 70 percent of fourth-graders tested were not considered proficient. That compares with 68 percent nationally. In addition to average scores, we have large huge gaps by race and income. 

Michigan, Wisconsin and Louisiana had the worst ranking in the country among African American students with 91 percent not considered proficient in reading. In Michigan 64 percent of white students are not proficient.

Another large gap is the difference based on income. Among low-income fourth-graders, 85 percent were not proficient. Among higher-income peers, only 60 percent were not proficient.

Early childhood opportunities, good health, safe communities, good schools and teachers, quality child care, parents and grandparents reading aloud often to young children, early intervention for children with delays and good school attendance all play a role. For advocates interested in rewriting the story of the cycle of poverty, these early years offer the place to do that.

— Judy Putnam


Adult services workers stretched thin

March 11, 2010

Judy Putnam

A rash of news stories about frustrated and angry people seeking help from understaffed state human services offices has revealed to us the strain of too few resources and too many people in need of help.

And a lawsuit over inadequate care for abused and neglected children in Michigan has forced new investments in the child welfare system.

But another story – this one of staff who investigate complaints of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation and who offer independent living help for elderly adults and those adults with disabilities  – was given by the Department of Human Services with pie charts and line graphs at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services earlier this week.

The bottom line is this: The 2002 early-out incentives for state employees permanently reduced the staff available to look out for the frail elderly and other vulnerable adults. (The department lost 2,800 experienced workers in that retirement wave.)

During that wave of retirements, the decision was made by the Engler administration to replace any worker dealing with children, but none of those workers dealing with adults.

The upshot? Michigan has 328 adult services workers, down from 541 adult services workers in 2000. That means caseloads have risen in the Independent Living Services program from 73 cases per worker to 175 cases per worker. Clients used to get four visits from a worker; that’s been cut to two.

Forty-three counties have just one worker and 22 counties have two workers.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic was this: Despite rising referrals of complaints of adults who have been abused or neglected (often by the very people who are entrusted with their care) the number of confirmed instances of mistreatment of vulnerable adults has held steady at around 9,500 per year.

The caseload for Adult Protective Services is 38 per worker; above the national average of 25 cases per worker, the committee was told.

Unfortunately the need for investigations into complaints of elder abuse will only grow as Michigan’s population ages.

Let’s face it – as with caregivers of children, those who live with frail adults are often stressed to the maximum and lash out at very vulnerable people. And as with our children, we must offer protection to those who are unable to protect themselves.

The PowerPoint given by the department ended with a quote from Pearl Buck: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.’’

— Judy Putnam