GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The death of a Wyoming baby who was left alone for two days, strapped in a car seat in his home, is prompting a policy shift at the state agency accused of failing him.
In Kent County, Children’s Protective Services will now require a higher-level manager to sign off on caseworker decisions involving families whose CPS histories meet certain criteria.
Noah Johnson’s mom brought his lifeless body to a hospital on July 19, 2017. An autopsy showed the 6-month-old had severe diaper rash and had been dead for some time.
Police said Lovily Johnson, 22 at the time of her son’s death, admitted to leaving her baby boy alone over a period of days while she hung out with friends and smoked pot. She told police she checked on him once during that time, at which time she gave him a bottle and sang him a song.
The investigation of Noah’s death was not the first time the state had contact with his family. CPS confirmed neglect or abuse of Noah on more than one occasion prior to his death. However, the standardized tool the state uses to assess threat to children always put the risk to Noah at low to moderate. Because of that risk level, workers closed the cases out without additional monitoring, though they first gave Johnson a list of resources she could call for help.
Now, when a Kent County family has more than one prior case, even if the risk was low to moderate, frontline workers will have to get a higher-level “program manager” to review the case if they want to close it out.
Previously, only the caseworker’s direct supervisor needed to sign off on that decision.
“There will be higher level review in cases that meet this criteria, with a program manager now reviewing and approving them,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Bob Wheaton wrote in an email to Target 8. “This is a result of the Noah Johnson case.”
CPS’s decision not to monitor Noah’s care was among the failures cited by the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, the independent, state-funded watchdog agency that reviews CPS actions in child death cases.
“The OCO recommends Kent County CPS review the (prior) investigations (related to Noah Johnson’s family) with the relevant workers and supervisor to discuss the need for opening and monitoring services when a parent has continually been found to have abused and/or neglected their child,” the ombudsman’s office wrote in its report on Noah’s case.
The ombudsman wrote that it had “repeatedly raised concerns” regarding CPS’s handling of families that have multiple prior incidents with low to moderate risk level.
“Kent County management reviewed the noted investigations with the involved supervisors in August 2017,” wrote Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services in its response to the Ombudman’s report.
“The involved workers (those who handled prior contact with Noah Johnson’s family) are no longer employed with Kent DHHS. Additionally, Kent County will now require consultation with second line management for approval of Category III investigations (low to moderate risk cases) that involved a prior preponderance of evidence disposition.”
MDHHS, which oversees CPS, said previously that it’s “obtaining and reviewing recurrence of maltreatment data reports… to identify facts that correlate with risk recurrence including child age, type of complaint and family history.”
The OCO referenced the state’s ongoing data review in its finding.
“As (Noah Johnson’s death) is another instance of a family having multiple… investigations and a child has died, the OCO appreciates that any gathered data will be shared once available,” the ombudsman’s office wrote in its report.
MDHHS provided this statement to Target 8 Monday:
“MDHHS is saddened by the tragic death of this child – and by any child death. Child welfare workers in Kent County and around the state dedicate their lives to protecting children. This work is complex and difficult and we consistently strive to improve policies and practices that will help staff support families and ensure child safety. As a result of recent Office of Children’s Ombudsman reports, including the one having to do with the Kent county case, MDHHS has provided staff with training on relevant policies and laws and has enhanced local office procedures to include additional oversight.”