LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A legislative oversight panel says the public should see the results of state investigations into the deaths of children who are involved with Michigan’s child welfare system.
The recommendation was included in a report adopted unanimously Thursday by the House Oversight Committee. It stems from lawmakers’ review of an audit released in April that found that the state Department of Health and Human Services did not notify the Office of Children’s Ombudsman of 206, or 20%, of child deaths from 2014 through 2017 because workers did not check a box in a cumbersome software system.
The office independently investigates complaints involving children who are under state oversight for reasons of abuse or neglect, and checks to see if public or private agencies followed laws and policies.
Current law only lets people who can file complaints with the ombudsman’s office — including parents, guardians, their attorneys, mandated reporters or legislators — get the written findings, recommendations and DHHS response to the ombudsman’s investigation. The House panel recommended that the ombudsman be required or allowed to publicly release the information.
A similar recommendation was made by the children’s ombudsman in her most recent annual report.
“This is an issue of transparency. It’s an issue of accountability,” said Rep. Matt Hall, a Marshall Republican who chairs the committee.
Another recommendation would give the ombudsman discretion to do preliminary investigations — not full reviews — in child death cases, freeing the agency to focus on complaints involving living children who remain in the system.
Children’s Ombudsman Lisa McCormick, who was appointed to the post by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January, told lawmakers in June that there is value in looking at every child death but her office should have leeway, particularly because some deaths are accidental and not the result of violence.
“When you have the discretion to make those decisions on which cases you fully investigate, you can focus your attention on the real issues in child welfare and address those,” she said.
Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat, said there are instances where “death happens for some tragic reason that had nothing to do with good parenting. To put those parents through a complete investigation when early on you are confident that this was not anything the parents could have or should have done differently is to put traumatized people through a really crummy experience.”
The panel also said whatever software replaces the failed MiSACWIS system should provide a more efficient way for child deaths to be reported to the ombudsman.
The state is pulling the plug on the network that was rolled out in 2014 and which has cost more than $200 million to build and service.
In March, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds told state officials to come up with a solution after an expert reported an “unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents, and data fixes” that might never end.