Deaths of drug-exposed babies prompts law review

Watchdog was CPS to monitor drug-exposed babies for three months

Aundreyes Clecker, Jaxon Denton, Honesty Whiteside
Left to right: Undated courtesy photos of Aundreyes Clecker, Jaxon Denton and Honesty Whiteside, all of whom tested positive for illegal drugs at birth and died before their first birthday.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A state legislator is launching a review of child protection laws after Target 8 exposed a disturbing pattern of drug-positive babies dying within their first year.

“You don’t ignore something like this when it’s brought to your attention,” said state Sen. Judy Emmons, a Republican from Sheridan.

Target 8 examined the cases of three drug-exposed babies who died before their first birthday — not from the drugs, but from unsafe sleep or indeterminate causes.

While the drugs were not the direct cause of the deaths, a watchdog agency wants Children’s Protective Services to automatically monitor families of infants who test positive for unprescribed, illicit drugs. The Office of Children’s Ombudsman made a recommendation to CPS that it adopt such a policy, following the families for at least three months after the birth of the child.

Right now, whenever the state is notified of a drug-exposed infant, a caseworker conducts a standardized risk assessment that includes home visit. But if the risk scores low to moderate, the caseworkers may decide to end the state’s involvement with the family.

“At this point, you can’t fault the state because they were going according to the guidelines that they had in hand,” said Emmons, who chairs the Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee.

Sen. Judy Emmons
State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, watches a Target 8 investigation on how Children’s Protective Services respond when babies are born with illegal drugs in their system. (Nov. 16, 2016)

“When you see something like this, as a legislator, you say, all right, we need to go back, we need to re-evaluate, we need to pull everybody who’s involved in administering what is on the books now and see where we can improve it,” she continued.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, told Target 8 that he’s “angry” that CPS said it doesn’t think substance abuse is necessarily child abuse.

“It is,” Jones wrote in an email to Target 8. “I think it’s reasonable to follow up for three months if an illegal substance is detected.”

Colin Parks, CPS state manager, told Target 8 that making it mandatory that caseworkers monitor families of drug-exposed infants would require a change in law.

Emmons plans to gather information from all parties to determine whether a new or amended law is warranted.

“Does the law need to be amended to address a situation that may be growing, something we hadn’t anticipated?” Emmons questioned.

Meanwhile, CPS is still reviewing and considering the ombudsman’s recommendation.