Audit: Many Michigan child welfare complaints not reviewed due to strained resources

By: - May 1, 2019 10:05 am

Updated 1:00 p.m., 5/2/19

A report released Tuesday by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) found that the Office of Children’s Ombudsman (OCO) does not have the resources it needs to fully investigate the state’s growing number of complaints about child welfare.

The report summary observes that “capacity and mandated investigations have limited the number of OCO investigations of child welfare complaints,” an assertion with which Children’s Ombudsman Lisa McCormick agrees, according to the full report.

Lisa McCormick

The audit notes that “OCO management… indicated that it believes that OCO is operating with 2 investigators below an optimum level.” The OCO’s official website lists nine employees, two of which are investigators.

In the audit, the OAG writes that “OCO’s resource limitations… [are] concerning because OCO is the only option within the state for individuals to seek an impartial examination of child welfare complaints regarding children involved with CPS, foster care services, adoption services, and the juvenile justice system.”

The OCO was established in 1994 as an independent agency that investigates cases regarding children who “for reasons of abuse or neglect are under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services or its private contracted agencies.” It also advises state government on overall child welfare policy.

McCormick told the Advance that “moving forward we are going to work to try to determine the most effective and efficient way to organize data in order to properly conduct an independent review” of their process for investigating child deaths, adding that “we agreed with the auditors that we should be independently making that determination.”*

Tuesday’s audit describes an office hamstrung by limited resources that are overwhelmed by the state’s mandate that it investigate certain child deaths. According to the report, 85 percent of its investigations over roughly the last four years fell under that category, leaving a large proportion of child welfare complaints unreviewed.

The number of child welfare cases in Michigan has steadily climbed over the past few years, as noted recently in the Advance by the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Alicia Guevara Warren. According to the nonprofit’s 2019 Kids Count report, the rate of child abuse and neglect increased from 2012 to 2017 by 30 percent.

At the same time, the new computer system used to track those abuse and neglect cases was found to suffer from “an unmanageable backlog” that “negatively affect[s] outcomes for children and families,” according to an independent audit released in March as part of a federally mandated overhaul of the state’s child welfare system.

Alicia Guevara Warren

The OCO audit found that issues with that system tied to its use by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) directly led to the office’s inability to investigate more than 200 child deaths from 2014 to 2017 in a timely manner. McCormick noted to the Advance that those mistakes were due to human error, not previously reported technical problems with the MiSACWIS system, and that she lauded MDHHS’ efforts to remedy those errors.*

Other findings in the audit included that the office failed to follow up on more than 30 percent of complaints it received in the recommended window of time, and that it needs increased data encryption for its electronic system for submitting child welfare complaints.

The OCO agreed with and has stated it either will comply or have already complied with all three of the audit’s main findings.

The OAG’s report says that “effectively addressing OCO’s limitations will require input from the Governor, the Legislature, the Children’s Ombudsman, and OCO management. We encourage the relevant parties to begin those discussions.”

This piece was updated with comment from Children’s Ombudsman Lisa McCormick.

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.