LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — When Charlotte Smith gets to her Lansing office in the morning, she checks her email. There is one subject line she sees often: “Child death.”
She is the supervisor of Michigan’s Office of Children’s Ombudsman, which investigates citizen complaints about children involved with protective services, foster care, adoption services and juvenile justice.
The OCO also gets “child death alerts” from the Department of Human Services whenever a child who had prior contact with Children’s Protective Services dies.
“It’s always good when you come in and you go, ‘Wow, we didn’t get any.’ That’s a good day,” Smith said.
But those days don’t come often.
Smith has been with the OCO almost since it opened in 1995. Since then, the office has investigated countless child deaths to determine if CPS caseworkers followed law, policy and procedure.
“Sometimes there are missteps. They miss some things. Sometimes it’s a judgment call,” Smith explained.
In some of the state’s highest-profile child homicides, the Ombudsman’s office has uncovered CPS mistakes.
In 2005, Ricky Holland was killed by his adoptive parents in mid-Michigan despite calls to CPS warning that the 7-year-old was in danger.
Smith said that in some cases, CPS should have filed a petition with the court to remove the child.
“Sometimes a petition is not filed and it may be clearly documented in the CPS report that they had sufficient evidence to file a petition, and yet they didn’t,” she explained.
Now, there is a push to expand the OCO so it can review the actions of agencies beyond just CPS.
For example, when OCO investigators review a child’s death right now, they sometimes uncover problems with the court system, lawyers, police or other agencies.
A bill is being considered by the Michigan legislature that would allow the OCO to review the actions of those agencies and make recommendations for improvement.
At a recent legislative committee hearing, Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan supported giving the OCO more authority.
DHS is the department that oversees Children’s Protective Services.
“We are committed to no child dying from abuse and neglect in our state,” Corrigan said. “We should have no deaths. …And we need to figure out what went wrong when a child dies, so we need the most vigorous external reviews of what happened when a child dies so we can do better.”
Smith said the bill would help Michigan agencies protect children more effectively.
“It’s a good thing for the system because we’re all about trying to make the child welfare system better,” Smith said.
If you have a complaint about the actions of Michigan’s protective services, foster care, adoption services or juvenile justice, you can call the Office of Children’s Ombudsman to request an investigation at 1.800.MICH.FAM or 1.800.642.4326. You can also email the OCO at firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, the OCO is not an emergency intervention agency. If you have a situation that needs immediate action, call your local DHS office or law enforcement agency.