GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Calls for reform within Michigan’s child welfare system are being answered by legislation aimed at more transparent and efficient investigations.
Over the past two years, audits have analyzed the state’s child welfare system and identified needed improvement.
In April 2019, one audit found the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman (OCO) was not investigating a large percentage of abuse cases with living victims because resources are first directed at child deaths. The office is the watchdog group that handles complaints when children have contact with the state’s welfare system.
The group also investigates complaints involving youth facilities if one is filed with the OCO.
One responsive bill, HB 5249, aims at giving the office more discretion in which complaints deserve more urgency and attention.
“They’re forced to handle child death investigations first, basically. So what we’re trying to do is give them flexibility,” Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, explained to News 8, adding prioritizing investigations with a living victim could help prevent future deaths.
Hall co-sponsored the bill and introduced related legislation, HB 5248. That bill would require the ombudsman office to make findings public.
“There could be an investigation going on right now, and we wouldn’t know, and I want to know what the results of that investigation are,” Hall said. “I want to know what happened here. What went wrong? So that I can work on legislation to fix it.”
The proposed bills, which passed the House and are scheduled to go before the Senate next week, carry even more relevance in the aftermath of Cornelius Fredericks’ death.
Documents obtained from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) show investigators learned Fredericks was also wrongfully restrained by staff in January at Lakeside Academy.
“This supine restraint continues for approximately 31 minutes. During this time, four to seven staff members are seen restraining (Fredericks),” one document explaining the January incident from KDPS’ investigation stated.
At one point, the report noted he was lifted to a seating position and appeared “disoriented and semi-conscious. 35:40 minutes into the video, staff stands him up and walks him from the area. At this time, (Fredericks) can be seen crying and appears to have considerable difficulty walking.”
The KDPS report goes on to state Lakeside staff described the January restraint in a written report as only lasting 10 minutes and other portions noted by staff “represent significant departure from what is clearly visible in the video.”
“Had someone filed a complaint about that, the child ombudsman could’ve investigated it and presented a report on it that was public and this could’ve been addressed then in January,” Hall said in explaining the importance of the proposed legislation.
“If the legislature can’t see it. If the public can’t see it. If the media can’t find it then what’s driving these agencies of government to change? What’s driving child welfare in our state to improve and to fix its problems? And the only way to do that is through transparency, pressure from the public and the legislature acting to update laws to hold them accountable,” the representative added.
Jason Smith, who previously spoke to News 8 about advocacy being done at the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, applauds the push for transparency in a statement he shared:
“The Michigan Center for Youth Justice supports the passage of House Bill 5248, which would require the Children’s Ombudsman to make public any findings and recommendations developed as a result of investigations into complaints made in child welfare cases. We believe that transparency and accountability are key components for ensuring that the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are fair and effective- expanding public access to investigation findings is an important step in the right direction. “