HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) - Leaders of Michigan's Child Protective Services are addressing concerns about how its investigators handle cases where a child may be in serious danger.
CPS leaders have found that the agency's "threatened harm" policy has not been properly followed.
The state's CPS watchdog, known as the Office of Children's Ombudsman, cited failures regarding threatened harm in two recent major cases of child abuse in West Michigan. They were the cases of Layla Kupres of Ottawa County and Glenn Ross, Jr. of Kalamazoo County, both infants.
Layla was 5 months old when she was hospitalized with several broken bones and a closed head injury. Glenn was 13 days old when he died after he was shaken and thrown on the couch by his father.
In both cases, CPS had prior contact with the parents of the babies, and according to the OCO, should have done more to prevent the children from being hurt.
Threatened harm was added to CPS policy in 2006 in an effort to empower investigators to recognize the potential for child endangerment before a child is hurt or injured.
The expectation is for CPS investigators to recognize when "a child [is] found in a situation where harm is likely to occur" based on "current" or "historical" circumstances, CPS policy states.
In Layla's case, her father, Ryan Kupres, had been convicted of abusing his own child before. Publicly, the OCO won't specify what more investigators could have done, but Layla's mother said CPS did very little.
She said that while a CPS caseworker came to her home to look around, that caseworker left shortly thereafter without discussing Kupres' history of abuse. Layla's mother said she was not aware of Layla's father's past.
Target 8 also learned that a tipster contacted CPS after Layla was born and expressed concern that she could be in danger.
In Glenn's case, someone expressed concerns over the mental wellbeing of Glenn Ross, Sr. – even before Glenn Jr. left the hospital after birth. Those concerns were shared with Child Protective Services.
The OCO found that CPS officials failed to properly follow up on the case as part of its investigation after Glenn Jr.'s death.
Child Protective Services officials said they've recognized the agency's shortcomings when it comes to addressing threatened harm and they're now doing something about it.
Officials denied that findings by the OCO had anything to do with their decision to act.
"These investigations need to be done more thoroughly and in accordance with policy and if they're done in that way kids are going to be safer," said CPS State Manager Colin Parks. "We're seeing either a misapplication of this [threatened harm] policy or misunderstanding of it."
Parks launched a training program addressing threatened harm that he is taking statewide in an effort to clarify what threatened harm is and how CPS investigators should handle it.
He said state investigators need to utilize the investigative tools they have at their disposal to better assess the potential that a child may be harmed.
In some cases, that could mean providing services for families. In more extreme cases, it could mean petitioning the court to remove a child before abuse ever occurs.
"Your obligation is to dig. Your obligation is to take a look at that case history," Parks said when talking about his message to CPS investigators. "Ideally, we want kids at home with their parents safely."
Target 8 was granted access to one of Parks' training sessions at the Department of Human Services office in Holland. Investigators from several counties were brought in for the training and were provided with an opportunity to give feedback to authorities.
Some workers expressed that part of their concern involves the courts – fearing that a judge would not authorize a petition that doesn't already involve substantiated abuse.
Parks said that part of their plan is to educate the courts on the threatened harm policy as well.
As an illustration of the problem, Parks showed data obtained in a CPS audit conducted on one of the tools it uses to help recognize threatened harm – CPS' Birth Match system.
The Birth Match system alerts CPS investigators when a parent with prior CPS involvement has another child.
However, Parks said CPS found that several of the leads generated by the system didn't get proper follow up and hardly any resulted in a petition to the court.
"Three's nothing in those investigations that workers did that digging that we've been talking about, where they took a look to see if [previously rendered] services really benefited that family," Parks said during the training session. "In many of these cases we find that the worker did not request termination even though it was required [by CPS policy]."
"None of these have any sort of documentation of alleviation of threatened harm. None of them got petitioned to court. None of them obviously request for termination," Parks said in reference to one of the slides presented during the training. "We need to do things better and how do
we do that?"
Many caseworkers, who should only carry a maximum of 15 cases at a time, have short tenures with the agency, Parks said.
"It is difficult work that these front line workers do every single day," Parks told Target 8. "It's a difficult job. These are folks who are seeing some pretty traumatic stuff."
Confidentiality issues not only preclude CPS officials from talking publicly about specific failures of the agency, but they also can't discuss the many instances where the system worked the way it was supposed to and lives were saved.
"It would be nice to be able to hear those good stories of the engagement that we do with families," Parks said.
While the state is making efforts to improve CPS, the primary responsibility for caring for children lies with parents and families.
While it's a CPS caseworker's job to intervene when he or she is called, Parks admitted that there are instances where abuse will happen anyway.
"There are times when there's nothing that you can do," he said.
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