LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The state is working toward ending restraints within the child welfare system on a significant date: the anniversary of Cornelius Fredericks’ death.
In the spring of 2020, the 16-year-old Fredericks was restrained by employees at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo and later died. In June, state investigators ruled the restraint was wrongful. Three former Lakeside employees were later charged in connection to the death are still awaiting trial.
In September, a steering committee led by the Children’s Services Agency within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was announced to examine foster care and juvenile justice placement practices in the state.
The committee held a virtual meeting with stakeholders Thursday, which News 8 was able to observe.
The steering committee has been divided into seven subcommittees focused on reform:
- Intervention policy and practice
- Contract monitoring
- Data reporting
- Casework policy and practice
- Licensing oversight
- Financial management
- Youth and family engagement
“This has to truly be … about supporting children and families and you can’t do that if you’re not talking to them and if they’re not at the center of this experience,” MDHHS Children’s Services Agency Executive Director JooYeun Chang told News 8 after the meeting.
Her committee co-chair Wellspring Lutheran Services Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Sean de Four also acknowledged the significance of parents and youths being involved.
“I’ve been in the welfare field for just over 20 years and I can tell you I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a process where youth and family voice(s) were as important, given sort of equal weight and involvement in the process. As well as provider voice, even,” de Four said.
Nearly 50 stakeholders attended Thursday’s meeting. While the virtual format required by the pandemic can create an obstacle to access for those without internet and technology capabilities, there are some silver linings.
“Because you don’t have that travel time, I think more people are able to fit the commitment into their schedule,” de Four explained. “And I think a 6-month time frame, which is relatively tight for this kind of change, was probably able to stay on track in part because many of the meetings were virtual.”
That time frame comes from the short-term goal the committee has set to submit proposed changes to agency rules. The recommendations must first be signed off on by other state officials and then go through a legislative process, which will include hearings and additional public input, before becoming finalized.
“I think by the end of this quarter, we will see proposed language, at least as it relates to the restraints and seclusion pieces of the licensing rules,” Chang said.
Among the proposed changes would be eliminating restraints unless absolutely necessary — that is, during emergencies or live-saving intervention.
“That’s just the reality of the world that we live in in the residential environments we’ve designed and built, but at the same time, I was really proud that we took the stand to say we’re relegating a physical intervention like this only to emergency and for life-saving reasons,” de Four said. “Not to protect property. Not as an intervention to control behavior. Not because a kid is refusing to follow the rules and mouthing off, but only if it’s about life and safety.”
By May 1, 2022 — the two-year anniversary of Fredericks’ death — the committee hopes reforms will be implemented statewide.
“He is ever-present, I think, in all of our minds as we do this work and it’s really important for us to keep him at the center and to humanize this and not just make this about a set of bureaucratic rules,” Chang added. “I just want to really recognize that this is at the center of all of our work and that we are trying to honor him through these really challenging circumstances, but to improve the system in his name.”