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Senate bill seeks more transparency within CPS

Tennessee State Government

A Michigan Senate bill would allow lawmakers and credentialed media to access some confidential children’s protective services case files.

The bill is in reaction to the recent death of five year old Ethan Belcher in Detroit, which his extended family members said was the result of beating and other abuse, and other reported abuse cases.

The child’s extended family says they've been unable to gain details from CPS, even after reports of abuse begun.

“The case worker literally wasn’t working with me at all because I’m just an aunt and especially I’m in another state,” Candace Rush said during a press conference Thursday. “I’m willing to help this child to stay alive, to be out of this situation to where he can have a life.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services oversees CPS.

In a statement, department spokesperson Bob Wheaton offered MDHHS’ “deepest sympathies to the Belcher family during this extraordinarily difficult time,” and said it “appreciates their advocacy for protecting children.”

The department pledged to continue working with law enforcement and other stakeholders on child abuse prevention.

State Senator Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) said he hopes expanding access to confidential files would lead to greater accountability within CPS.

“I personally think that if CPS knows that the Legislature and the media have the ability to get information, that’s going to go a long way towards them saying we don’t want to have this ever repeated again. Because now it’s not going to be able to be buried internally,” Runestad told reporters.

MDHHS said it strives to be “as transparent as the law allows” while following state and federal guidelines.

“The confidentiality requirement in state and federal law protects children who have been abused or neglected – and their siblings – from the additional trauma of having the intimate details of their alleged abuse and neglect made public,” the statement from Wheaton said.

Runestad’s bill as written would only permit the lawmakers and reporters to access that confidential information and discuss it with the department but not spread it. They’d be bound to similar standards as medical professionals and lawyers already mentioned in the state’s current exceptions.

The bill was filed with the Secretary of the Senate Thursday, meaning it could be read into the record and assigned to a committee next Tuesday at the earliest.

One potential landing spot is the Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee.

If it comes her way, committee Chair Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said she would look at the bill.

“I am heartbroken by the tragic story of Ethan Belcher and my heart goes out to his brother and aunts. Every child should be safe from abuse, and I invite robust conversation about ways we can improve our laws to prevent this from happening again. I will review this bill more closely and, if it comes before my committee, will consult with MDHHS, child abuse advocates, and legal and public safety officials in my evaluation.”

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