Bills would make CPS tape interviews with kids

Mecosta County father who lost custody of his daughters urges passage of measure

Cary Flagg
In Lansing, Cary Flagg testifies before a legislative committee about bills that would require CPS interviews with children to be videotaped. (May 2017)


LANSING, Mich.  (WOOD) — On a sunny, early spring day in Lansing, Cary Flagg was itching for a fight.

“I can’t fight legally anymore for my kids. Now I fight for other parents,” he said.

The 35-year-old father from Mecosta County lost custody of his four daughters over allegations of sexual abuse, even though he was never charged with a crime.

Flagg was accused of sexually abusing two of his young daughters after an investigation by Children’s Protective Services. The court’s decision was based on the testimony of a state-paid psychologist, a state-administered polygraph and an investigation that even the judge said deviated from protocol. It was a civil rather than criminal matter, where the rules of evidence were less stringent.

Now Flagg is fighting for change in Lansing.

Appearing before the state House Judiciary Committee this month, Flagg told lawmakers his child custody case is a prime example of why forensic interviews with small children should always be video recorded.

“The videotaping of the forensic interviews (is important). If the jury would have actually heard what was said, I would have never lost my children. I wouldn’t have been terminated,” Flagg testified.

CARY FLAGG’S STORY

In 2013, Flagg and his ex-wife were going through a bitter divorce and custody fight. CPS was involved and there were complaints on both sides, though nothing was ever substantiated. Later that year, the girls’ mother took their then-5-year-old daughter to the hospital after blood was found in her underwear. A CPS investigation was opened and investigators immediately focused on Flagg.

Flagg insists he never touched his daughter.

CPS investigators and a Mecosta County sheriff’s deputy interviewed the children — but none of those interviews were documented on video, leading to ambiguities as to what the child said or didn’t say. That confusion would have been eliminated if the interview had been taped.

“I would have been able to use these tools to prove my innocence and to prove what was actually said in their own voices to the jury and that jury would have never given jurisdiction,” Flagg said.

Last year, Target 8 asked former CPS caseworker Ben Hall to look at Flagg’s case. Hall said what happened to Flagg is an example of a department employing investigators who were inexperienced, overworked and often at the mercy of supervisors who never had any contact with the families under investigation.

“Children are being removed from families not because of the law, not because of safety, but because of policy,” Hall said.

BILLS WOULD REQUIRE RECORDED INTERVIEWS

Since his termination, Flagg and his new wife Sara have lobbied lawmakers to support CPS reforms. They have formed online support groups and have gotten active, throwing their support behind a trio of bills that would mandate investigators videotape forensic interviews of children.

“It’s something that protects everybody, if there’s abuse we would like to see that excised.  If it’s not we would like a clearer picture of that as well,” Sara Flagg said.

The proposal has detractors. The interviews would span each county and family court statewide, creating potential storage and maintenance issues. Others insist the camera itself may retraumatize vulnerable children, although supporters say the device would be hidden.

The bills have bipartisan support, including from state Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake.

“It is a major, major issue with families and our system today,” Runestad proclaimed.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bob Wheaton said in an email to Target 8 that the agency “has not taken a position on the bills.” Wheaton said they “are working with the bill sponsors.

“Our goal with any legislation is to make sure our staff have the tools they need to adequately protect children,” the statement said.

CPS Manager Colin Parks acknowledged to Target 8 last year that there were areas for improvement.

As of Tuesday, the bills — House Bills 4298, 4299 and 4300 — remained in committee.

“There are cases where we could have done better,” Park admitted.

Cary Flagg says the state owes it to parents to be better, and recording the interviews with small children would be a start.

“I know not being able to play that recording in front of a jury is what cost me my kids,” he said.

—–

Resources:

Michigan Department of Health & Human Services

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families

Suspect abuse or neglect? Call 855.444.3911

Complaint about Children’s Protective Services? Contact the Michigan Office of Children’s Ombudsman