Senators discuss efforts to reform Michigan’s juvenile justice care system


Shane Ersland


Stakeholders discussed challenges juveniles in Michigan’s justice system face—and initiatives aiming to improve their healthcare—during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) meeting Tuesday.

“Michigan has tried to work on making sure that we are prioritizing our juveniles, no matter where they are in their lives, and making sure we have a process that works for them,” Subcommittee Chair Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) said. “And part of that is making sure that, through the Child Care Fund, we’re making sure juveniles in our community can be rehabilitated and can move forward in a proper direction.”

Samantha Gibson, governmental affairs associate at the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC), said counties rely on a variety of funding sources to provide services and support youths in the justice system. 

“These are ongoing costs the counties carry,” Gibson said. “Without proper funding, it is incredibly difficult to make budget decisions that promote rehabilitation services—including mental and behavioral healthcare and substance use disorder treatment—to these affected youth. The current bed and staffing shortage in these facilities threatens the progress we have made with other reforms.”

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Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist signed 19 bills aimed at reforming Michigan’s juvenile justice system at the end of 2023. The most important and beneficial bill for counties was Santana’s Senate Bill 418, which provided an increase to the Child Care Fund reimbursement rate, Gibson said. 

“The rate was increased from 50 percent to 75 percent for community-based services,” Gibson said. “The fiscal year 2024 budget also included this increase before the rate change was implemented in statute. So counties got this reimbursement rate as of Oct. 1, 2023. This increased funding to counties will address some of the issues we face within the juvenile justice system, and allows counties to expand current programs and possibly create new ones they were previously unable to fund.”

Michigan does not have enough beds to care for the growing number of youths who need them, however, Gibson said. 

“Down-state, we have a bed shortage as a result of a severe staffing shortage,” she said. “In northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, however, there are simply no beds available because there’s not a facility in that region. If counties could adequately pay staff within their facilities, we could begin to address this bed shortage crisis by filling vacancies and, in turn, opening additional beds.”

The MAC and several other stakeholders sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel in October 2022, pleading for help to address the bed shortage crisis, Gibson said. 

“County-operated detention centers were housing youth for months at a time, as opposed to days or weeks, as they’re intended to be used. Children in need of the most care to protect themselves and the community were not receiving appropriate placement. The letter provided a set of short- and long-term recommendations to address this crisis, which are being addressed. It is imperative that additional funding be allocated to counties and used to address the staff shortage crisis.”

— Gibson

Whitmer signed Executive Order 2021-6 in June 2021, which established the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform. The task force led a data-driven analysis of the juvenile justice system, and recommended proven practices and strategies for reform.

Rhonda Ihm—president of the Michigan Association for Family Court Administration and a Genesee County Family Court administrator—serves on the task force, and said it established two workgroups. One focuses on residential treatment, while the other focuses on detention center standards in the state. 

“Genesee County operates a court-operated facility,” Ihm said. “What I know about these facilities is they [have] caring people. They’ve chosen this as a career; it’s not a job to them.” 

The workgroup is focused on developing standards of care that would support kids and families while they’re in detention facilities and residential facilities, Ihm said. It also aims to establish a continuous quality improvement process to provide fidelity to those standards. The task force is collaborating with representatives from Utah, Pennsylvania, and California to inform that process, she said.

“We’ve learned about the minimum standards in California. So we’re using those guides from other states to develop our work and recommendations. In addition to having these minimum standards, one of the things we learned about is performance-based standards. For residential and detention centers, it puts in accountability and performance data for facilities. And the facilities can use that data to implement performance improvement plans. Coaching comes along with it as well. If you had facilities that needed help implementing behavioral health standards, your coaching could focus on those.”

— Ihm

Ihm said the leading cause of the juvenile justice facility crisis in the state is staffing. 

“The average pay for a youth specialist in a detention facility, on the high end, might be $18 or $19 (an hour),” she said. “And that’s just not sufficient for the work they do. People have to deal with children with much more complex needs these days. Once they’re properly trained, they need to be properly compensated. And I think that’s leading to the staffing shortages that are leading to your capacity issues, and that’s why we have a placement crisis in Michigan.”

Hon. Karen Braxton, a judge in the Third Judicial Circuit of Michigan’s Family Juvenile Division, said reforming the state’s juvenile justice system is a critical issue that needs immediate attention. She said there are several cost-effective strategies that can be adopted to reform it and ensure better health outcomes for youthful offenders. 

“One is to invest in prevention and early intervention programs before youth is actually involved in the system. By targeting these at-risk youth before they enter the system, we can help prevent delinquent behavior and reduce the overall number of juveniles in detention. This can be accomplished by creating and utilizing community-based programs such as mentoring, counseling, and community outreach, which are effective methods in steering youth away from criminal activity and towards more positive choices.”

— Braxton

Demetrius Starling, senior deputy director of DHHS’ Children’s Services Administration, said the Keep Kids Safe program can help as well. The program’s agenda focuses on prevention, intervention, stability, wellness, and workforce initiatives. The number of the program’s Family Resource Centers recently expanded by five for a total of 11 in local communities, he said. 

“Family Resource Centers work with families at risk of abuse and neglect to meet their needs sooner (rather) than later and strengthen their protective factors,” Starling said. “Under prevention, (we’re) developing a firearm safety protocol to provide guidance for child welfare staff to talk with families about firearm safety. [And] we have developed an intervention tool that requires regular communication with case workers and their supervisors during key points of their investigation.”

Readers interested in learning more about Michigan’s healthcare workforce challenges can register for the 2024 Michigan State of Reform Health Policy Conference, which will be held on April 4 at the Lansing Center. An “Implications of Healthcare Workforce Shortages” panel and a “Children’s Health & the Role of School-Based Services” panel will both be held at 1 p.m. Hertel will be the opening keynote speaker at 8:30 a.m.

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