GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A mistake by a well-known child welfare agency could have put a West Michigan toddler at risk before she was kidnapped earlier this year.
The Office of Children’s Ombudsman, a state watchdog, criticized Bethany Christian Services for allowing the child’s father to have unsupervised parenting time with the 2-year-old.
Mark Saporita-Fargo failed to return his daughter to foster care at the scheduled time on Jan. 23, 2017, triggering a statewide manhunt that stretched 20 hours and 200 miles. Police got a tip and found the pair near the state line in Hillsdale County the day after they went missing. The toddler was safe and unharmed.
Saporita-Fargo, 47, was later convicted of conspiracy to commit unlawful imprisonment, as was the man who drove the father and daughter across Michigan, Jeffrey Alan Miller.
Target 8 contacted the Office of Children’s Ombudsman in Lansing to inquire about the incident and the organization opened a review. The OCO is a quasi-independent state agency within the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget that investigates complaints regarding Michigan’s child welfare system.
The 2-year-old was living in a Muskegon County foster home but was under the supervision of Mason County Probate Court. The OCO sought to determine if the Mason County Department of Health and Human Services and Bethany Christian Services followed law, policy and DHHS procedures in allowing Saporita-Fargo unsupervised parenting time with his daughter.
“Our investigation of this case included, among other things, reviewing electronic case files including children’s protective services (CPS) reports, police reports, court documents and other pertinent documents and interviewing staff and supervisors at Bethany Christian Services,” the Children’s Ombudsman, Orlene Hawk, wrote.
Saporita-Fargo, who has an extensive criminal history, was scheduled to go to trial the morning after the kidnapping on charges he sexually assaulted a teenager in a case not related to his daughter. He did not show up.
A potential red flag that he had no plans to return his daughter or go to trial in the unrelated case was that he showed up for visitation in a different vehicle than usual and with a different driver — Jeffrey Alan Miller. Miller, 50, had met Saporita-Fargo while the two were incarcerated.
“We have completed our full investigation and concluded that Mason County DHHS complied with law and policy,” the ombudsman’s office wrote in its letter to Target 8.
But it had a different finding regarding Bethany Christian Services, the agency that provided foster care services for the toddler.
“Bethany Christian Services did not fully comply with law, policy and DHHS procedures,” Hawks wrote.
The ombudsman’s office is prohibited from releasing investigative details, but did share what it requested of Bethany Christian Services and how the agency responded:
“Based upon our investigation, we requested that Bethany Christian Services take the following action:
- “Determine why Bethany Christian Services did not fully review the CPS history for Mark Fargo and explain how this will be corrected in the future.
- “Review procedures for verifying the identity of drivers who are transporting parents and children for parenting visits and determine whether the procedure is sufficient.
“As a result of our requests, Bethany Christian Services took the following actions:
- “Bethany Christian Services has updated case files to include all available reports and information regarding family histories and emphasizes in monthly team meetings the importance of reviewing a family’s CPS and foster care history in MiSACWIS.
- “Bethany Christian Services has strengthened its procedure for verifying drivers who are transporting parents and children for parenting visits and requires that the driver be on file with a completed criminal background check before releasing the child for parenting visits. “
Target 8 asked Bethany Christian Services to provide further explanation for its handling of the case.
“The safety and well-being of children and families is Bethany Christian Services’ primary concern. Due to privacy laws, we are not at liberty to address any questions on this matter,” Bethany Christian Services replied in an email.
The day the toddler was found safe and her father taken into custody, Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola said the court had given the toddler’s foster care worker discretion to decide whether Saporita-Fargo could have unsupervised visits. The prosecutor said the foster care worker told him Saporita-Fargo had supervised visits with his daughter for several months before he “earned” unsupervised visits. The foster care worker said Saporita-Fargo had been having unsupervised visits with Hailey for the last six weeks and there were no red flags during those visits.
Saporita-Fargo is serving 18 to 40 years for conspiracy to commit unlawful imprisonment and his conviction for third-degree criminal sexual conduct in the unrelated case.
Miller was sentenced to one year in jail and three years on probation.