Mike Leach can’t resist a good court-enforced child welfare settlement.
He spent about 12 years working for Tennessee’s child welfare agency, the Department of Children’s Services, rising through the ranks until he became the director of performance and quality improvement. The system was under a federal court settlement, the result of a class-action lawsuit brought against it by the national child advocacy group Children’s Rights, for the entirety of Leach’s employment.
And when the state finally exited court oversight this year, Leach left to take the top job in South Carolina, which is three years into a settlement with Children’s Rights as well. The plaintiffs have complained that the state is not making enough progress on reform, and even filed a contempt motion in late 2018. But litigators have expressed hope that the hire of Leach by Gov. Henry McMaster (R) is a good sign.
“Michael Leach has a clear passion for serving kids and families and is committed to making the system better,” said Children’s Rights Litigation Director Ira Lustbader, co-counsel on South Carolina’s settlement.
He inherits a state agency that has seen the number of youth in foster care rise from 3,113 in 2012 to 4,666 as of April 2019, according to data from The Imprint‘s recently released “Who Cares” reporting project. After several years of seeing its stable of non-relative foster homes decline, South Carolina added more than 100 homes last year. But it continues to house foster youth with relatives at a rate lower than all but a handful of states.
The Imprint talked to Leach about his first few months on the job, what he learned from Tennessee’s lawsuit experience, and how he views recent changes in federal law and policy.
What did the governor flag or highlight to you as priorities when you came on board in South Carolina?
That a lot of things needed to happen quickly. We needed more resources and leadership to work through the Michele H lawsuit settlement agreement and work toward best practices.
Mostly his office was focused on, how we improve this system to support and strengthen families. That was great for me to hear, that it wasn’t the politics of it all, just how we do better work in this area.
You recently toured the state hearing from stakeholders, right? What did you hear out there?
You need to go out and hear consumers and all those who work alongside us – my own staff, parents, foster parents, other partners. We’ve created a foster parent liaison position that handles concerns or questions, and we’ll host 41 foster parent town hall meetings aimed at strengthening communication and collaboration with foster parents.
We planned four community forums, we’ve done three out of the four. In the Midlands, we had about 100 people come, and for the two in our Lowcountry and Pee Dee regions, 200 folks each. These forums have included community stakeholders, foster parents, staff and we’ve had a few legislators to attend. We’re sharing state and regional data on the number of children in care, as well as trends in case intakes and caseload management, so people have perspective for the status of the system.
I’ve met with the Palmetto Association for Children and Families (PAFCAF) – the group home provider network as well as several individual providers, and toured their facilities and have been impressed with the work I have seen. There is a lot of good work going on and a lot of willingness to partner with us to improve the way we serve kids.
I also met with about 230 young people – some in care, some non-custodial, some just on Medicaid – to understand where we are. A lot of this is just, let’s listen. We have a lot of foundational work going on that will take a while. But this will help us all with seeing where we are as a system and where we need to improve.
We heard about the need for better communication, more timely permanency, more support for foster parents and that staff need lower caseloads to do their work well. Salaries need to be increased and more training for trauma. As a new state director, this helps me to establish a baseline for establishing the plan forward.
What do you see as the agency’s strengths and weaknesses after spending a few months here?
I think we have a lot of hardworking frontline professionals who care about their jobs and folks who want to do good work. The lack of resources over many years has created a gap in the practices, and policies and increased caseloads.
I think we have a fear-based culture going back many years. I’ve learned of a situation where a mistake was made and several employees in a county office were fired. People don’t forget those things.
We have to recognize the importance of reunification and the use of kinship caregivers to help children maintain healthy bonds with relatives and to lessen the trauma they experience when interfacing with the child welfare system. CPS investigates and indicates cases [caregivers for maltreatment] at a rate about 9 percent higher than other states. I don’t like where we are as a system with that. We need to focus on providing services that help families heal and build protective factors and not punish families.
South Carolina has to be among the lowest states in terms of relying on relative caregivers.
We’re last. We have the lowest percentage in the country of children (all ages) in kinship care while in foster care. We do utilize kinship care non-custodially as an option. We are building a process to expedite kinship approval for faster placement once children enter care.
So is that connected to the fear-based culture you mentioned, are they part and parcel of the same problem?
I don’t know that they’re inter-connected – that one is necessarily based solely on the other one – but, I do think it’s a philosophy thing. I think we need to understand better how positive kinship care can be to a child and how kin placements affect permanency. It’s an opportunity to look at practice and what’s important to us. I would love to have a subsidized guardianship track and that is on our priority list to develop. We certainly have to do more in that area to move forward.
You spent years working for a state that just successfully exited a class-action lawsuit after a long time. What did you learn about that experience that you think can help you in working on this one?
What I’ve learned is that consistent, strong leadership can move a system forward, and to a place where it can exit [a court settlement]. I think I come in with mature thinking around things people may not have thought about here, that we did in Tennessee. It’s a team effort and everybody plays a role in understanding the measures and meeting the goals.
I have that expertise to come into conversations and say, this is the right direction. That’s going to be helpful for the system and in coaching and mentoring individuals to have high expectations that we can achieve the goals and metrics that are laid out for us.
One thing I’ve learned out of Tennessee … sometimes the pendulum swings toward compliance, and we can lose some focus on quality. It may take a while to hit metrics. It’s hard to move forward on practice if there’s not an underlying policy change. I have already been in front of Judge Gergel four times for federal court status conferences and I believe we have established a level of trust with him. We talk with the federal court monitors regularly and we are honest about where we are and where we’re consistently building the infrastructure for system improvements.
In general, do you think the settlement requirements line up with what you think needs to be changed at DSS?
I really do think so, most of it is focused on the right things.
I share [the plaintiffs’ and monitor’s] frustrations on things taking a long time. Like the child and family team meeting process. They believe, ‘Mike, we gotta do something better.’ But I have to make sure we have the right technical assistance, with the right money, and the right people to put a good plan together.
The number of licensed foster homes in South Carolina went up last year after declining for a while. What do you think worked, and do you have any ideas for increasing the pool more?
I think our partners have done a good job of expanding their recruitment efforts. Our provider groups are working with and getting the faith-based organizations involved. We need to continue to do better on retention, and on communication with foster parents so we can keep good foster parents. There’s a lot of work to do there.
And there are still occasions where I’m having to split siblings up, or place teens into congregate care because we don’t have a foster parent who will take a sibling group or teen. This is where we need to focus our energies. That, plus getting kin involved early. And managing caseloads – if kids don’t need to be in our system, we have to make sure we’re sharing data, messaging, doing reviews and keeping on top of this so we don’t delay permanency for children.
South Carolina has received special permission from the Trump administration to allow its faith-based contractors to be selective in who they work with. How much of the state’s child welfare work is done by organizations that need that approval to operate?
I believe it was only one organization [Miracle Hill]. And compared to the whole system, that scope is very small. They do have congregate care and foster homes, but in the grand scheme of it all, Miracle Hill is one of 11 licensed agencies with a religious affiliation and one of 20 licensed foster care agencies, so that’s fairly small in scope.
But the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave that permission to all of your faith-based providers. Is your sense that none of the others are following a similar philosophy about who they work with?
Not to my knowledge. We as a state agency, and our provider agencies, believe that families regardless of whatever kind of family it is, can be good parents to kids who need good parents. That’s our focus. Families that can provide safety, stability and a nurturing, happy environment.
How are you thinking about the Family First Act as it applies to South Carolina? Any big concerns?
I think some states, like where I came from, Tennessee … a lot due to the settlement there, it put them in a good spot with the prevention side of work, and the congregate care side, so they can really move forward with the implementation.
I think we are not in as good a spot. We don’t have a consistent assessment tool. The structure of our congregate care, our Medicaid dollars, needs to be looked at. I do think we have some strong, evidence-based practices [funded] through our relationship with Children’s Trust, and many counties are getting Strengthening Families and Triple P [Positive Parenting Program].
We have an approved Program Improvement Plan (PIP) through the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR), we have the Family First Prevention Services Act, the Michele H lawsuit and many priorities that we have to make sure they are integrated as much as possible and it’s a lot to focus on all at the same time. But we have to make sure we’re prepared and we have many work groups in place that include our partners. I do believe we are excited about Family First, especially the prevention aspects.
This year, HHS began to allow states to use IV-E entitlement funds to pay for legal fees of parents and children involved in child welfare cases. Is South Carolina planning to take advantage of that?
We’ve already begun to move on that. My legal team has reached out to the Office of Indigent Defense in South Carolina to have preliminary meetings and discussions about our state drawing federal funds for the attorneys of parents. DSS has begun drafting the MOU between the parties and we anticipate being ready to begin the new funding model in the coming months.
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