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Lansing — The Michigan department tasked with investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect has struggled to respond to complaints on time, conduct required background checks, contact victims in a timely fashion and take other steps to ensure safety, according to a scathing new state audit.

Gov. Rick Snyder called the findings “unacceptable” and assigned top aide Rich Baird to lead the administrative response and pull together resources to help the Department of Health and Human Services “accelerate the needed corrective actions.”

The 111-page report released Thursday by the office of Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler documents 16 “material conditions” and seven other troubling issues identified in a review of Child Protective Services investigations overseen by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat who has criticized the Snyder administration's handling of his city's water crisis and a false fraud unemployment scandal, called the new audit "heartbreaking" for children who were "neglected by the very people tasked with their safety." 

"This isn’t the first time this administration has failed the people of Michigan and it won’t be the last," Ananich said. "This time, the victims are Michigan’s most vulnerable children. The bottom line is that they’re either bad at running government or they just don’t care – I’m not sure which is worse."

Among the findings released Thursday, auditors said that in more than half of the cases they reviewed, CPS investigators failed to conduct required criminal history checks or look for previous complaints against individuals who lived or came in regular contact with an alleged child victim.

Of the 143 individuals who should have been subjected to a criminal background check, 37 had records involving a combined 54 felonies and 119 misdemeanors, according to the audit. One had previously been convicted of felony child abuse. There were also five felony and one misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct convictions.

Of the 262 individuals who should have been subject to a complaint registry clearance check, 25 had a history of child abuse or neglect allegations, including 13 who had been investigated more than once, according to the audit.

The Health and Human Services Department, in an official response to the audit, said it has hired a full-time coordinator and changed to official policy to ensure more consistent background checks.

"It is important to note that a prior criminal conviction is one piece of information used when investigating the complaint allegations and is insufficient alone to reach a conclusion concerning parental capacity to provide a safe home and adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care,” the department said.

Spokesman Bob Wheaton said the Health and Human Services department “takes the findings very seriously” and is already taking actions to “make improvements for the good of children and families.”

“While the department does not agree with all (the) findings, MDHHS agrees that Children’s Protective Services can and must improve,” Wheaton said. “The department shares the concern that the Office of Auditor General has for protecting Michigan children from abuse and neglect. This is a top priority.”

Operating under a federal consent decree since 2006 because of past failures in the child welfare system, the Health and Human Services Department is generally required to complete investigations within 30 days of a complaint unless a supervisor approves an extension.

But of the 160 investigations reviewed by auditors, the state did not complete 47 within the required time frame. Those cases were completed an average of 44 days late, according to the audit, with one case taking 241 extra days.

Prompt completion is designed ‘to ensure prompt evidence collection, conclusions and actions in regard to the safety and well-being of children and families,” auditor said.

Despite the findings, the department said completion of timely investigations is actually “an area of practice strength in Michigan.” In a recent review related to the federal consent agreement, 84.2 percent of investigations were completed and approved by a supervisor within 44 days, the department told auditors.

The report also described how Child Protective Services investigators failed to consistently make face-to-face contact with an alleged victim with 24 or 72 hours, as required depending on risk. In 18 of the 160 cases auditors reviewed, investigators did not make in-person contact with 25 alleged victims in a timely fashion.

The first face-to-face contact with one alleged child victim came 128 days late, and the average for the other 22 alleged victims was 6.4 days late, according to the audit.

In one investigation, the complaint alleged a mother had locked her teenage daughter out of the home as a punishment and would not let her back in. An investigator visited the home 16 hours after the complaint but was told the mother had taken the child to the hospital. The investigator did not attempt to contact the child again until four days later, in the hospital.

The department agreed that contact was late in those 18 cases but said its 89 percent compliance rate in the audit shows that “making timely face-to-face contact with the involved children is consistently an area of strength for the department.”

Auditors said an automated computer system the department uses was at least partially responsible for inaccurate assessments of potential risks to children whose alleged abuse prompted a complaint an investigation.

The report highlighted inaccurate risk assessments in 57 of 156 investigations reviewed by auditors, including 46 instances where the alleged child victim was actually at greater risk than the assessment suggested.

Auditors determined that “underlying system coding caused (the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System) to provide an inaccurate reponse for 6 of the 7 automatically generated responses, and investigators did not always make the appropriate corrections.”

MDHHS said most of the issues were chiefly the results of user error in scoring the tool. In July 2017, the software system stopped “prefilling” question in the risk assessment, which the department said helps ensure that the worker accurately completes the assessment rather than relying on the system to score the items.  

A separate survey conducted by the auditor general’s office showed that a majority of CPS investigators said high caseloads negatively impacted their ability to conduct investigations in compliance with department policy, and 55 percent said that was true in at least half their cases.

Most CPS investigators also said they were concerned about their own physical safety while conducting investigations, including 25 percent who said they feared for their physical safety at least half the time.

More than 60 percent of investigators said physical safety training provided by the department doesn’t adequately prepare them for unsafe situations, and 37 percent said they’ve considered quitting or transferring because of physical safety concerns.

"A lot of good people are trying to accomplish a lot of good things in protecting Michigan’s most vulnerable populations," Snyder said. "It can be stressful, and I understand the frustration people involved in this area must feel when they are hindered by cumbersome processes and procedures. The focus needs to be on helping the children and we are committed to making improvements."

Child abuse or neglect investigations are sometimes triggered by mandatory reporters, such as teachers, who are required to report allegations by children.

Investigators did not always document contact with those mandated reporters confirming they attempted to obtain additional information. In 119 cases initiated by mandated reporters and reviewed by auditors, DPS investigators did not document any attempts to contact that mandated reporter in 25 cases.  I

In 82 cases, the investigator did not properly notify the mandated reporter about the investigation’s conclusions, which “is important because a mandated reporter may have established an ongoing relationship with the child victim and could potentially serve as a safety net once CPS is no longer involved with the family. MDHHS said “efforts are underway to amend policy and clarify these requirements,” auditors said.

While the department disputes some of the findings, it also told editors about several changes to practice and policy it is undertaking.

“The corrective actions that we already have implemented and will continue to implement are indicative of MDHHS taking the findings very seriously and understanding the need to make improvements,” Wheaton said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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