DHS appears to violate law in Lawhorn case

Jamarion Lawhorn is charged with murder as an adult in the death of 9-year-old Michael Connor Verkerke.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The agency required to protect Michigan children appears to have violated state law by not removing Jamarion Lawhorn from his home last year — long before he stabbed a 9-year-old boy to death, Target 8 has learned.

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Tobin Miller, acting supervisor for the Michigan Office of Children’s Ombudsman, said it appears the state Department of Human Services violated the “Child Protection Law,” which is meant to protect children from repeatedly abusive parents.

The law, Miller said, shows DHS Children’s Protective Services workers should have petitioned to terminate Lawhorn’s parental rights in 2013.

“It certainly does appear they should have filed a petition after the 2013 complaint,” he said.

The Office of Children’s Ombudsman has opened an investigation into CPS’s handling of the case in response to questions raised by Target 8.

The case could lead to an internal DHS investigation that could prompt changes in policy, new training and discipline. A DHS spokesman said he could not comment on specifics of the case.

The law says DHS “shall” petition the court to terminate parental rights when a parent has a prior termination — even if it’s voluntary and in another state — and when there is new abuse.

Court records show Jamarion’s mom, Anita Lawhorn, gave up her rights to two children in New York in 1999. That was after abuse that included a 1-year-old daughter with four broken bones and a 3-year-old daughter with what appeared to be cigarette burns on her chest.

In 2004, there were two Michigan CPS investigations over allegations of abuse or neglect involving Anita Lawhorn. One court report shows the state substantiated abuse back then. It’s not clear who the victim was in that case.

Then, last year, CPS substantiated allegations of physical abuse by Anita Lawhorn and Jamarion’s stepfather, court records show. In that case, the victim was Jamarion.

The Office of Children’s Ombudsman, the watchdog agency tasked with oversight of CPS, said it appears that would have required the state to take steps to remove Jamarion from his mother in 2013.

But that step was not taken. A source at the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office said CPS workers did not ask them to file a petition. Instead, the mom and stepdad were ordered to parenting programs.

It was only after Jamarion stabbed 9-year-old Connor Verkerke to death on a Kentwood playground on Aug. 4 that CPS filed papers to terminate the mom’s rights to four children, including Jamarion.

Michael "Connor" Verkerke.
(Connor Verkerke.)

Jamarion allegedly admitted to the murder and said he killed Connor because he wanted to die and take someone with him. He has been charged with murder as an adult in juvenile court, making him the youngest person ever to face a murder charge in Kent County.

After police arrested Jamarion, they found he was covered with bruises that he had told others were put there by his stepfather.

They also found he was living in a “deplorable” home with no utilities, no sheets or blankets on the beds, cocaine paraphernalia in the bathroom and little food in the kitchen, court records show.

Prosecutors confirmed on Wednesday that police were investigating new abuse allegations.

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