Target 8 update: 100+ child deaths not reported to watchdog

Chance Powell
An undated courtesy photo of Chance Powell.

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — In the week since Target 8 exposed a gap in Michigan’s child death reporting system, CPS has documented dozens of additional deaths the agency failed to report to a state-mandated watchdog.

Over three years, Children’s Protective Services failed to notify the independent ombudsman of the deaths of 122 children statewide.

Deaths not reported to ombudsmen:

  • 2016: 37
  • 2015: 45
  • 2014 :40

On average, CPS reports around 300 child deaths yearly to the ombudsman, which means it missed more than 10 percent of cases.

In Michigan, state law mandates that CPS notify the Office of Children’s Ombudsman when a child dies under the following circumstances:

  • The child is under court jurisdiction
  • There’s an active CPS investigation or open CPS case
  • CPS received a prior complaint concerning the child’s caretaker
  • The child’s death may have resulted from abuse or neglect

If the child’s contact with the state occurred within two years of his or her death, the ombudsman is required to examine whether CPS caseworkers followed policy in their contacts with the child’s family prior to the child’s death. The ombudsman, which has a staff of six investigators, makes recommendations to CPS leaders on system improvements to better protect our most vulnerable children.

CPS says it won’t happen again

“The monthly checks should prevent this from happening in the future,” said Bob Wheaton, Public Information Officer with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CPS.

Wheaton said CPS will cross check the state’s child welfare computer database monthly instead of quarterly or every six months, as it has done in the past.

“It’s a more coordinated approach with (a CPS official) working more closely with the unit that manages child welfare system data, which will result in a more comprehensive cross-check,” wrote Wheaton in an email to Target 8.

“There are no plans for any additional measures at this point,” said Wheaton.

Baby’s death revealed flaw in reporting system

It was the death of a Sparta baby that prompted Target 8 to take a closer look at the state’s system for reporting child deaths.

While researching the opioid crisis in West Michigan, Target 8 came across the 2015 death of Chance Powell. The 10 month old accidentally swallowed a morphine pill in the Sparta apartment where he lived with his grandma. She told police that she kept her morphine bottle in her bra so her adult children couldn’t steal pills.

Instead, Chance got a hold of a loose one and swallowed it.

Target 8 contacted the ombudsman’s office to find out if the watchdog had examined any contact Chance’s family had with CPS prior to the baby’s death. That’s when it was discovered that CPS never reported Chance’s death to the ombudsman.

Shortly after the ombudsman questioned the state about that oversight, CPS discovered it had failed to notify the watchdog of 37 deaths in 2016.

Target 8’s initial investigation detailed where the reporting breakdown likely occurred, and why it’s important that the ombudsman reviews every child death, every time.

CPS acknowledges more missed deaths

A week after the report aired, CPS acknowledged it had discovered 45 additional unreported deaths in 2015, as well as 40 missed cases in 2014.

CPS is in the process of sending the names of all 122 children to the ombudsman so the watchdog can review each death and determine whether full investigations are warranted. The Office of Children’s Ombudsman, created as an oversight authority by the state legislature in 1994, is located within the state’s Office of Technology, Management and Budget. The watchdog, which investigates the state’s handling of cases involving CPS, foster care and juvenile justice, works out of DTMB in order to maintain separation from Children’s Protective Services and MDHHS.

CPS has its own internal Office of Family Advocate, which also reviews deaths with a goal of improving child safety in Michigan.

OFA did not receive notification of the unreported child deaths either.

“I was surprised. Definitely surprised.” said Seth Persky regarding the discovery of unreported deaths.

Persky, the Director of the Office of Family Advocate, added that he did not want the office to miss any child deaths.

“(The Office of Children’s Ombudsman) serves an important purpose. So we want to get them accurate information so they can do their job well…We all get into to this business to help families, to protect children,” he said.

Persky stressed that even if notification doesn’t reach the Office of Family Advocate or that of the children’s ombudsman, CPS officials at the county level always conduct reviews of child death cases, looking for potential errors and ways to improve the system.