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Dwayne B. v. Snyder

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

July 25, 2017

DWAYNE B., by his next friend, John Stempfle, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RICK SNYDER, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of Michigan, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DISPUTED PROVISIONS OF IMPLEMENTATION, SUSTAINABILITY, AND EXIT PLAN

          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge

         As reflected in an order dated February 2, 2016, the parties to this suit have entered into an Implementation, Sustainability, and Exit Plan (“ISEP”) that replaced and superseded a prior settlement agreement reached by the parties. A dispute has arisen between the parties concerning the proper interpretation of certain provisions of the ISEP. The parties filed briefs in support of their respective readings of these provisions, and the Court heard argument on this matter at a June 8, 2017 status conference held in open court. For the reasons discussed below, the Court is persuaded that Plaintiffs' proposed construction of the disputed ISEP provisions better comports with the language and purpose of the ISEP and the underlying state law governing Michigan's child welfare system.

         I. The Obligations Set Forth in ISEP § 6.12 Apply to Placements in Unlicensed Kinship Homes.

         The first of the parties' two disputes concerns § 6.12 of the ISEP, which prohibits the placement of a child in a “foster home” if this placement “will result in: (1) more than three foster children in that foster home; (2) a total of six children, including the foster family's birth and adopted children; or (3) more than three children under the age of three residing in that foster home.” ISEP § 6.12(a). In Defendants' view, the term “foster home” as used in this provision should be understood as referring only to licensed foster homes, and not the unlicensed home of a relative. Plaintiffs, in contrast, contend that there is no basis in the language of the ISEP, viewed as a whole, for construing the term “foster home” in the narrow manner advocated by Defendants. The Court finds that Plaintiffs have the better of the argument on this point.

         In support of their preferred reading of the “foster home” language of § 6.12(a) as limited to licensed foster homes, Defendants first point to § 6.7 of the ISEP, which provides that children in the “foster care custody” of the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (“DHHS”) “shall be placed only in a licensed foster home, a licensed facility . . ., or an unlicensed relative with a waiver.” ISEP § 6.7. In Defendants' view, the distinction in § 6.7 between a “licensed foster home” and an “unlicensed relative” suggests that the similar “foster home” language of § 6.12(a) should be understood as drawing this same distinction - i.e., between licensed foster homes (which are subject to the restrictions set forth in § 6.12(a)) and unlicensed kinship placements (which are not). If Plaintiffs wanted placements with unlicensed relatives to be subject to these same restrictions, Defendants contend that they should have proposed language for § 6.12(a) that encompassed both foster homes and unlicensed kinship homes, rather than just the former.

         As Plaintiffs correctly observe, however, other ISEP provisions belie the notion that the term “foster home” should invariably be read as encompassing only licensed foster homes, while excluding unlicensed kinship placements. Most notably, while Defendants cite the language of § 6.7 as supporting their interpretation of this term, Plaintiffs point to language in the immediately preceding provision, § 6.6, that leads in the opposite direction. Under this provision, when “a suitable relative foster home placement is not available, ” the DHHS must develop procedures to ensure that a child “is placed in the foster home that is the best available match for that child, irrespective of whether that foster home is a DHHS-or private CPA-operated foster home.” ISEP § 6.6. This provision, as Plaintiffs rightly point out, uses the term “relative foster home” to “describe both licensed and unlicensed kinship placements.” (Dkt. 275, Plaintiffs' Br. at 3 (emphasis in original).) Contrary to Defendants' assertion, then, the unqualified term “foster home” as used in the ISEP is not synonymous with a licensed foster home, and the use of this unadorned term in § 6.12(a) does not exclude the unlicensed home of a relative.

         Defendants next contend that Plaintiffs' favored reading of § 6.12(a) would occasionally operate against the best interests of children:

For example, § 6.12 would prohibit DHHS from placing a brother and sister, both under age 3, with their cousins if two of the cousins were also under age 3. Section 6.12 would also prohibit DHHS from placing a group of three siblings with an aunt and uncle if the aunt and uncle had four children of their own, no matter how favorable the placement.

(Dkt. 276, Defendants' Br. at 1-2.) Defendants acknowledge that under § 6.12(b), the director of the Division of Child Welfare Licencing (“DCWL”) can authorize exceptions to the restrictions imposed in § 6.12(a) “when in the best interest of the child(ren) being placed.” ISEP § 6.12(b). Nonetheless, because this agency's regulatory jurisdiction ordinarily extends only to licensed placements, Defendants surmise that the DCWL director would lack the authority to grant exceptions involving unlicensed kinship placements.

         As Plaintiffs note in response, however, Defendants have identified “no law, regulation or policy . . . that would prevent the Director of DCWL from exercising waiver authority [under § 6.12(b)] in relation to both licensed and unlicensed homes.” (Plaintiffs' Br. at 3.) So long as the grant of a waiver would not exceed or otherwise conflict with the director's authority under Michigan law, the parties were free to agree upon an ISEP provision that gave the director the power to make case-by-case exceptions to the prohibitions set forth in § 6.12(a), whether as to licensed foster homes or unlicensed kinship placements. See Local No. 93, International Ass'n of Firefighters v. City of Cleveland, 478 U.S. 501, 525-26, 106 S.Ct. 3063, 3077 (1986) (recognizing that a court may enter a consent decree that “provides broader relief than a court could have awarded after a trial, ” so long as this relief does not “conflict[] with or violate[] the statute upon which” the plaintiff's underlying claims were based). Accordingly, the Court cannot agree with Defendants' assertion that Plaintiffs' proposed reading of § 6.12(a) should be rejected as operating against the best interests of the children for whose benefit the parties entered into the ISEP.

         To the contrary, Plaintiffs observe that their preferred construction of § 6.12(a) is more readily harmonized with other ISEP provisions that are intended to serve the best interests of the children covered by the plan. Plaintiffs point, in particular, to a provision stating that relative caregivers should be licensed absent “exceptional circumstances, ” but mandating that even unlicensed relative caregivers “must meet the same safety standards as non-relative providers.” ISEP § 6.17(a). Plaintiffs assert, and the Court agrees, that this provision lends further support to the view that the safety-oriented capacity limits set forth in § 6.12(a) should apply - absent an individualized waiver based on the facts of a particular case - to both licensed foster homes and unlicensed placements with relatives.

         Accordingly, the Court adopts this reading of § 6.12(a), and rejects Defendants' more narrow construction of this provision as limited solely to licensed foster homes.

         II. The Health and Dental Care Commitments Set Forth in ISEP Sections 6.43, 6.44, and 6.47 Continue to Apply to Children Who Are Reunified with Their Parents on a Trial Basis.

         The parties' second point of contention concerns the commitments in the ISEP that children should be provided with (i) “an initial medical and mental health examination within 30 days of [their] entry into foster care, ” ISEP § 6.43, (ii) “an initial dental examination within 90 days of [their] entry into [foster] care, ” ISEP § 6.44, and (iii) “periodic and ongoing medical, dental, and mental health care examinations and screenings” following their initial examinations, ISEP § 6.47. In Defendants' view, because children who have returned to their parents' homes for trial reunification are no longer properly deemed to be in “foster care, ” they need not be provided with the health care examinations mandated under these three ISEP provisions. In response, Plaintiffs contend that children in trial home reunification placements remain under court supervision and subject to monitoring by their caseworkers, and they challenge Defendants' ...


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