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Detroit Center for Family Advocacy: Review Finds High Success Rate in Keeping Kids with Families

Detroit Center for Family Advocacy: Review Finds High Success Rate in Keeping Kids with Families

By Katie Vloet
May 13, 2013

"Without this center, I would have lost my children," one family wrote in its thanks to the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy (CFA). "I just wanted to say thanks to all of you at the Center, and may God bless each and every one of you. Please continue to do what you have done for me," wrote another.

Those families are just a small fraction of the number that the CFA, a program founded at the University of Michigan Law School, has helped in its first four years. The Center has achieved high rates of success in its efforts to keep kids out of foster care and with family members, according to a new report by an outside evaluator, and now the CFA is working with organizations in other states to replicate the model it has established.

The report found that the CFA was able to meet its legal objectives in more than 98 percent of prevention cases—those in which the Department of Human Services (DHS) had not removed the children from their families but had substantiated an abuse or neglect incident, and 97 percent of its permanency cases—those in which a child was living with a non-custodial parent, relative, or foster parent, and some legal impediment was preventing the child from staying in the home permanently.

"We're pleased with these outcomes because they show that our approach is working, and that it is an effective way to keep children out of the child welfare system," says CFA founder Vivek Sankaran, '01, a clinical professor of law in the Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic (CALC).

The CFA model works like this: An attorney from the Center partners with a social worker and family advocate to remove legal barriers and safety risks that otherwise might cause a child to be put in the foster care system. The center serves Wayne County, home to one-third of Michigan's foster children and half of the state's permanent court wards. So far the CFA has served 313 children from 174 families. Most of the cases are referred to the Center by the Michigan Department of Human Services.

"CFA is a pioneer in using this approach," said CFA Executive Director Robbin Pott, '05, "to serve low-income parents and relatives in an effort to keep families together, and to keep children in a safe, loving environment."

She added that the high success rate of the Center's cases occurs "because in most of these cases, just a relatively small amount of help is needed to keep kids with their families."

The legal issues the CFA has helped families to resolve have included landlord/tenant disputes, in which a child's home has been deemed too risky because of problems that a landlord needs to address; divorce proceedings that are needed to enable a grandparent to adopt a child in his or her care; a custody order needed by a non-offending parent; and many more.

Prof. Sankaran has been traveling around the country to explain the CFA model to organizations that work with foster children. The CFA also is hosting an event at the Law School on May 17, where child welfare leaders from across the country will learn about the model, the outcomes achieved in Detroit, and how they can apply the model in their jurisdiction.

The CFA is funded in part by the state's Child Care Fund, but the Center still must come up with funds totaling about $200,000 a year from foundation grants and private donations. Sustaining the Center is always a challenge, Prof. Sankaran says, even though the savings from this approach are significant.

Return-on-investment is difficult to calculate, but the evaluation of the CFA found big savings based on conservative estimates. If children from 25 percent of the 110 prevention cases would have entered foster care and stayed for the national average length of stay (about 21 months), the cost avoided by the Michigan child welfare system would be $1.3 million. That figure doesn't include permanency cases, which would make the return-on-investment much higher.

Prof. Sankaran points out that foster care still will be necessary in some child welfare cases, but that it should be avoided whenever possible because of poor outcomes such as increased risks of homelessness, unemployment, and other issues later in life, "not to mention the emotional scar from being removed from their families.

"The system has been throwing away money for poor outcomes," Prof. Sankaran said. "In reality, foster care should be considered a last resort, like chemotherapy for a cancer patient."

The CFA has received support from the University of Michigan Law School, the Bridge Foundation, Casey Family Programs, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Dewitt C. Holbrook Memorial Fund, McGregor Fund, Pillsbury Family Advocacy Fund, Quicken Loans Foundation, Skillman Foundation, Wayne County Department of Children and Family Services, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and private donors. The top private donor, retired Justice Bobbe Bridge—president and CEO of the Center for Children and Youth Justice in Seattle—will be honored at the May 17 event.

For more information about the event, contact Sankaran (vss@umich.edu) or Pott (rpgonzal@umich.edu), 734-763-5000.

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