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14 years in to lawsuit, monitor says state still has work to do to fix child welfare system

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo was closed after the death of 16 year old Cornelius Fredrick, who was in the state's custody.

A 14-year legal battle over child welfare reform in Michigan still isn’t done.

A monitoring report released Tuesday in federal court found the state only met 13 of the 52 performance standards it needs to meet before the child welfare system can be released from court oversight.  

The report period covered the second half of 2019, months before 16-year-old Cornelius Fredrick died following a restraint at a residential facility in Kalamazoo.

The state had dozens of investigations into the facility in the years before Fredrick died, yet it remained open.  

“We know that a lot of work is being done in this area right now,” said Elizabeth Pitman Gretter, an attorney with Children’s Rights, the organization that first brought the lawsuit. “But we do struggle to understand why so many years into this work the department continues to allow children in these settings to be placed in harm’s way. It concerns us.”

Pitman Gretter spoke during a status conference before U.S. District Court judge Nancy Edmunds on Tuesday.

In a response attached to the monitoring report, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services listed a number of reforms put in place since the death of Cornelius Fredrick at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo.

The state took steps to revoke the license at Lakeside, which is now closed, and says it’s pursuing license revocation for three other facilities, after reviewing their safety records.

JooYeun Chang, the head of Michigan’s Children’s Services Agency said the state is also working to ban the kind of restraints that led to Fredricks’ death.

As of now the state says there’s been a more than 50% reduction in restraints at children’s residential facilities statewide.

Robert Gordon, the head of MDHHS, called the state’s progress in child welfare reform “modest but real.”

And, despite the state falling short, Judge Edmunds and Pitman Gretter both praised the current leadership at MDHHS during the status conference.

The monitoring report was the first one issued since JooYeun Chang took over as head of the Children’s Services Agency.

Chang says her goal is to fix the system to help children, not just turn to quick fixes to make it look like the state is meeting certain standards.

“I think that’s one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is that you can’t do everything all at once, and expect to make systemic changes and have a lasting impact,” Chang says.

Still, 14 years after the lawsuit was originally filed, Judge Edmunds says she still has questions about why it’s taken so long for the state to “get a handle” on fixing the child welfare system.

“I’m going to retire pretty soon,” Edmunds said. “So I’d like before I retire to have this wrapped up, if possible.”

To read the full monitoring report, go here.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.