LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Committee members in the Michigan Senate recommended legislation be passed that would bring reform to the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman.
The bills would make findings from the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman public and give the office more discretion in how it utilizes resources to investigate complaints involving the state’s child welfare system, which the office is tasked with doing as an independent watchdog group.
Wednesday morning, the West Michigan representative joined Rep. Andrea Schroeder, R-Clarkston, to testify in front of the Senate’s Families, Seniors and Veterans Committee about the two bills.
“I think one of the key ways we’re going to get real change in our child welfare system is through the pressure that comes with transparency,” Hall testified. “If we know that (Child Protective Services) made a mistake and that caused a child’s death, or if we know about an emerging issue, we’re seeing in multiple investigations here then we can act either through legislation or through the appropriations process to make that change.”
Schroeder echoed the constructive changes these bills would bring.
“These bills are about transparency and protecting our kids and making sure that resources in CPS are being used where they’re most needed and, kind of, removing some of the existing barriers,” Schroeder said.
The barriers she referred to were identified as a result of an April 2019 audit that found a large percentage of complaints involving living victims were not investigated by the OCO.
Under the current statue, the OCO must prioritize death investigations involving children who died and had previous contact with the welfare system rather than prioritize public complaints involving a child currently in the system.
In many cases, a child’s death is not tied to any sort of neglect or mishandling by CPS which the OCO acting director acknowledged during testimony in March.
“In fiscal year 2019, we received 318 child death alerts, according to our system,” OCO Acting Director Ryan Speidel said in front of state representatives on March 4. “Of those 318 death notifications, we received that we opened based on our statue, 170 of them were due to (un)safe sleep (practices).”
Speidel also testified that six investigators for the office had to handle a combined 163 death investigations.
Complaints involving living victims were far greater but saw a much different result.
“In fiscal year 2019, we had 851 complaints calling into our office,” Speidel explained in March. “So that’s [living] children from the public involved in the child welfare system. Due to our heavy concentration on the death notifications and that lengthy investigation, we only opened 21 public complaints… We would like to flip that on its head and be able to address the public’s concerns with the agency or the child in child welfare.”
After taking a few questions, all seven committee members agreed both bills should go to the Senate floor with the recommendation they pass.
Speidel provided this statement to News 8:
“As the Acting Ombudsman I am in full support of house bill 5249. This bill will allow our office to maximize our resources. The Office of Children’s Ombudsman handles a large amount of complaints from the public in addition to investigating child death cases. We accomplish this with a small staff. This bill will allow us to use our resources and concentrate our efforts on investigations that can make positive impacts on Michigan’s child welfare system, while still reviewing every child death case in which the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had involvement prior to the child’s death.OCO Acting Director Ryan Speidel
With regard to house bill 5248 The Office of Children’s Ombudsman is supportive of legislation that helps us protect Michigan’s most vulnerable children. We look forward to working with the legislature to increase transparency in government while protecting the rights and privacy of those involved in our investigations.”