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May 15, 2000
Foster care -- Introduction
Child welfare officials take it case-by-case
Binsfeld laws aim at stability
Home not always a haven for children
Agencies impose strict criteria
Pilot program making progress with Indian children

Changes put onus on biological parents

Record-Eagle staff writer
      TRAVERSE CITY - Changes in Michigan's foster care system designed to shorten children's time in limbo have also put the onus on biological parents to pull themselves together more quickly.
      It's a change those involved with the system believe is good. However, some parents and others disagree with the shift away from family preservation at all costs, which is at the heart of the 1998 changes known as the Binsfeld legislation.
      "Some absolutely believe that we are in the wrong. We are in error and harassing them," said Mike Pavlov, child welfare supervisor for the Grand Traverse County Family Independence Agency, which is charged with protecting children.
      "Occasionally, issues of child safety come into conflict with family preservation," said Jim Scherrer, deputy director of Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan, the largest foster care placement agency in the region.
      While the demands of the Binsfeld laws may set the bar high, those within the system say it's not because they want to keep parents from their children.
      In fact, 38 percent of the Child and Family cases last year resulted in a return home. Adoptions were the second biggest outcome, at 25.5 percent.
      "Always, the focus is to return the children home," said Sheila Morgan, who with her husband Dennis has fostered children for nearly 10 years.
      "The goal, when appropriate, is always reunification," agreed Nina Merten, Grand Traverse County's attorney guardian ad litem. Merten represents the interests of minor children in family court, where foster care cases play out.
      Merten advises parents to use the foster care time to their advantage, to straighten out their own lives without the pressure of caring for children as well.
      "Try not to look at it as the state trying to intervene in your family. Try to look at it as the state trying to help," she said. "The problems seem to arise when the parents seem to see it as an invasion."
      It can be difficult not to, however.
      Foster care now is supposed to be limited to a year. In many cases, that means biological parents are asked to pull together in 12 months lives that are the product of generations of problems.
      For instance, parents who have trouble parenting their own children often came from homes where there was abuse, neglect or substance abuse.
      "I may not like what they've done to their children, but it's probably all they've ever known," said foster mother Judy Sandell. "It's a cycle."
      "Bio families, I think, now are expected to step up to the plate quicker," said Morgan, of Kingsley. "The court system does not procrastinate."
      During their foster parenting career, the Morgans have cared for children for as long as two-and-a-half years - which occurred pre-Binsfeld.
      They've also had a case resolved in as little as eight months - which happened post-Binsfeld.
      Bob Porter, director of the Grand Traverse FIA, which accounts for the biggest chunk of Child and Family Service's caseload, would like to see the time in foster care reduced further, from a year to six months.
      Porter said it's human nature to push a deadline. He believes extending the time would only mean more time in foster care, not that parents would be more likely to straighten out.
      "If you give a family three years to get their act together, that's what it's going to take," Porter said.
      The Binsfeld laws also take a skeptical approach. If someone who has had parental rights terminated due to abuse or neglect has more children, the FIA automatically must file a petition with the court to terminate their rights to the newborn.
      That doesn't mean the new child will be taken away, however.
      "FIA has an awful lot to keep them busy. They are not out there looking for families they can destroy," Merten said.
      While almost all parents initially resist what they see as the government's "intrusion" into their lives, many eventually go along with the system instead of bucking it.
      "Those are the parents that have successful reunification with their children," Merten said.
      Further blunting the opinion that state agencies can now run roughshod over families is the fact that the Binsfeld laws set up foster care review boards statewide.
      Previously used only in the largest counties downstate, the review boards, which consist of at least five members, meet monthly to review cases in the area. The goal is more oversight.
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