Audit: State child protection agency fails to adequately protect kids

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By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s Children’s Protective Services failed to document it had completed all required child abuse/neglect central registry checks for 70 percent of investigations reviewed, a recent audit by the state Auditor General’s office found.

Agency officials agreed improvements are needed, but in their response to the report disagreed that a “prominent relationship” exists between documenting a clearance on the registry, which lists previous perpetrators of abuse and neglect,  and assessing family history and child safety.

“Lack of documentation of the clearance does not mean the clearances were not completed, or that CPS was not aware of relevant history,” according to the agency’s response to the audit.

The audit also found:

  • 80 percent of reports sampled on siblings were not completed
  • 50 percent of cases sampled were not turned over to local prosecutors
  • 11 percent of employees sampled did not meet with children promptly
  • 256 confirmed abusers were not added to the state registry

Children’s Protective Services, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. The audit, which examined the agency’s operations from May 1, 2014, to July 31, 2016, found that 6,000 investigations had incorrect risk levels, meaning that children were put in harm’s way.

The Department of Health and Human Services is taking the audit findings very seriously,” said Bob Wheaton, a public information officer at the department. “Our organization agrees that our Children’s Protective Services can and must improve. The department has learned from this audit, has already taken corrective action and made improvements to the CPS system for the good of children and families and will continue to make improvements.”

The report prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to create the Children’s Protective Services Operation Excellence Team on Sept. 11. The team is headed by Orlene Hawks, director of the office of Children’s Ombudsman, and Rich Baird, senior advisor to the governor.

The team will look at policies, caseworker ideas and organizational structure, said Tanya Baker, deputy press secretary for Snyder’s office. It will study the allocation of resources and determine where changes are needed.

“The team will look at systemic and documentation problems that are impediments to workers getting their jobs done and correct them,” Baker said. “Having proper operating and internal controls is essential and the team will look at what is being done today and what needs to be done moving forward.”

The members of the team were chosen based on their unique skills and experience, according to Baker. In addition to Hawks and Baird, Melissa Blair was selected due to her experience as a Children’s Protective Services supervisor in Allegan County and her ideas to streamline documentation process.

Ward Beauchamp, of the Department of Technology, was selected to re-prioritize technology. Detective Lt. Jeremy Brewer, of the State Police, was selected because of his experience in domestic investigations. Pat McDonnell, of the Office of Performance and Transition, was selected because of his experience in auditing, controls, process reengineering and leadership development.

The deficiencies were uncovered as the Michigan League for Public Policy reports that over the last five years, the rate of children living in families investigated for abuse and neglect has increased by 25 percent. From 2012 to 2016, the rate of children victimized by abuse or neglect increased 23 percent but 30 percent among young children.

The league’s report notes that child well-being can be improved a number of ways, including home visitation programs, where different organizations send people to aid mothers and expecting mothers with preventive health care.

Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights, has called for legislation he introduced to be expanded and Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, has discussed a joint committee meeting to discuss legislative solutions to the problems found in the audit.

“The state and the taxpayers, are responsible for tens of thousands of their citizens, whether they are children or the elderly,” Yanez said. “We not only have a fiduciary responsibility, but also a moral responsibility to take care of those individuals.”

The legislation Yanez introduced would allow for more stringent background checks on potential state employees, according to the Legislature website. The legislation was referred to the Committee on Law and Justice.

Runestad’s interest in overhauling Children’s Protective Services stems from his time as a foster parent, said Krista Vincent, his legislative director. However, a date has not yet been set for Runestad’s meeting.

Editors note: This story on 9/16/18 replaced a version that moved 9/14/18 and contained incorrect information.