Child welfare audit confirms major progress at MDHHS

A new state audit shows “significant and measurable progress” in how the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) investigates child abuse allegations, Director Elizabeth Hertel said Monday in response to the Office of the Auditor General’s (OAG) formal update to a 2018 audit that uncovered serious issues during the Snyder administration.

Of the OAG’s 17 findings, auditors found that MDHHS had fully or partially complied in 15 of them, an 88% success rate. MDHHS strongly disagreed with one of only two findings labeled as non-compliant and questioned why auditors focused on process and paperwork rather than progress made by MDHHS since the Snyder audit.

“These findings confirm our focus and fuel our resolve,” Hertel said. “We welcome the opportunity and responsibility to work with the legislature, law enforcement, judges and other partners to transform Michigan’s child welfare system into a national model for competence and caring.”

The audit represents a bold pattern of reform at MDHHS: Independent monitors recently found nearly 100% compliance for the timeliness and staffing of child abuse investigations. 

As a result, Judge Nancy G. Edmunds of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan signed a stipulated order to modify the Modified Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan (MISEP) that dramatically reduces the remaining requirements MDHHS must meet for the department to be released from court oversight.

Last week, at the most recent court conference, Edmunds determined that the state met the performance standards for six additional areas of oversight, moving these areas closer to the removal of court oversight, and praised MDHHS for making "tremendous progress."

In 2018, the OAG issued a “scathing report” on Children’s Protective Services (CPS), a division of MDHHS, finding numerous and systemic deficiencies in the way child abuse investigations were conducted. 
Gov. Rick Snyder called the findings “unacceptable” and promised corrective action. A historically underfunded agency under federal court oversight since 2008, this was arguably the lowest point in the history of CPS and the broader child welfare system in Michigan.

Five years later, MDHHS is in a much stronger position, according to the audit and court oversight, thanks in part to the “Keep Kids Safe Action Agenda” shaped by Hertel after she was appointed in 2021.
The OAG’s report, which included agency responses, repeatedly shows progress from 2018 to 2023. According to the audit report, MDHHS:

Increased the frequency and effectiveness of supervisory reviews of CPS investigation activities. While the 2018 audit found 82% of investigations were reviewed within 14 days and 85% of cases documented a consultation prior to disposition, both numbers jumped in the new audit – to 94% and 98%, respectively.

Improved the agency’s use of a Central Registry clearance for people associated with CPS investigations, from 28% compliance to 86% compliance.

Improved how CPS conducts background reviews of family members, from 48% compliance to 73% compliance.

Improved documentation of communication with mandated reporters of child abuse, like police and teachers, from 31% compliance to 90% compliance.

Made face-to-face contact with alleged child victims within 24 to 72 hours for 95% of the cases reviewed by the OAG. At times, extenuating circumstances, such as the inability to locate youth after multiple attempts, impacted staff’s ability to make timely face-to-face contact 100% of the time.

Exceeded investigative performance standards required by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The OAG concluded that the department commenced 100% of required investigations within the required timeframes. MDHHS’ commencement policy requirements exceed best practices in other jurisdictions such as Washington, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Unfortunately, there are portions of the audit where the auditor focused on bureaucratic minutia rather than bottom-line results and improvements, the agency noted. In some cases, the auditor's observations were agenda-driven and based on arbitrary standards, resulting in a biased report that attempts to mislead the public about the agency's actual performance. Director Hertel also sent a letter to the OAG expressing her concerns with the audit process, highlighting these issues.

“We aren’t perfect. We have more work to do. But it’s a disservice to the people of Michigan to hold MDHHS accountable to disconnected administrative standards rather than our ability to keep kids safe and families together,” Hertel said.

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