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State auditor and human services agency at odds on ability to keep kids safe

A frightened child in the dark.
A frightened child in the dark.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) said it’s doing a better job of keeping children safe when there are allegations of child abuse.

The Office of the Auditor General (OAG) said the Child Protective Service division of the MDHHS is falling short and needs to make significant improvement in several areas to keep children safe.

In an audit, the OAG listed 17 findings. Among them the report said “improvements” were needed in seven areas, “significant improvements” were needed in four, and “considerable improvements” were needed in two other areas. Two areas where the OAG found the agency had failed to comply with its mandate were in the areas of ensuring accurate assessment of the risk of future harm children, and in monitoring families’ participation in post-investigative services.

“Compliance or partial compliance on 15 of 17 finding is immense progress and we’re very, very proud of that. Now, again, we are always striving to make sure that we’re doing better,” said Elizabeth Hertel, Director of MDHHS.

Since 2008, the agency has been operating under a federal court consent decree. MDHHS was underfunded, partly because of the Great Recession, and partly because of political decisions.

Shortcomings at the agency span three administrations which include governors Jennifer Granholm (D), Rick Snyder (R), and Gretchen Whitmer (D).

The most recent report from the Office of the Auditor General is a follow-up to a scathing report in 2018, during the administration of Governor Snyder.

The current report from the OAG is a follow-up to that earlier audit which indicates there have been improvements, but MDHHS said the auditor concentrated on bureaucratic minutia instead of the real world changes that affect children and their families.

In a release, MDHHS called OAG’s lack of focus on reforms made at the agency was “a disservice to the people of Michigan.”

“The progress that we've been able to make, both with what the Auditor General's follow up to the initial audit found and the progress that we're making under the consent decree are significant and have demonstrated that we are doing a better job of making sure that kids are staying safe and families are staying together,” Hertel said during an interview on Michigan Public’s Stateside.

The director added that there has been “incredible policy change, incredible progress to make sure that we are ensuring that kids are staying safe in the state of Michigan.”

Hertel criticized Auditor General Doug Ringler of biased reporting “that attempts to mislead the public about the agency’s actual performance."

She also conceded there are shortcomings at the agency.

“We know that we will always have room for improvement and we continue to work toward that. But our goal will and remains, ensuring that every kid in the state is safe.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Doug Ringler was appointed Auditor General by Governor Rick Snyder. Ringler was appointed to the position by the legislature.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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