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Audit: Michigan child welfare system slow, leaving kids at risk

A girl looking out the window
An update of a 2018 report blasting Michigan’s child welfare system says it takes too long to begin investigating child abuse and neglect complaints, putting children at risk. (Shutterstock)
  • A report by Michigan’s auditor general blasts the state’s child welfare system, saying staff move too slowly on investigations
  • The head of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services called the auditor general’s work “deceitful and dishonest”
  • The audit was released Tuesday, just a week after a federal judge lauded the department for improvements, but said it still falls short of protecting children once they’re in its care.

Michigan investigators move too slowly to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, further endangering the children they are tasked with protecting, according to the state's internal watchdog. 

A report released Tuesday by Auditor General Doug Ringler identifies ongoing problems with Child Protective Service investigations, despite some improvements six years after his office first recommended changes. 

But the head of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has fired back, claiming the probe smacked of politics from the get-go and does nothing to help Michigan’s children.


The department has formally disagreed with most of the auditor general’s findings.

“Unfortunately, it appeared from the start of this process that the (Office of Auditor General) would be reluctant to acknowledge the program's significant results, irrespective of the facts,” MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel wrote in a two-page response to Ringler.


The auditor general’s 88-page report, released Tuesday, is an update of a 2018 probe that found 17 “material” or serious problems with the department’s work, including that staff failed to initiate investigations of child abuse and neglect within the required 24-hour period.

The state health department said Tuesday it has “fully or partially complied” with 15 of those initial findings.

The new audit reviewed cases randomly selected among the approximately 68,000 complaints of abuse and neglect in a one-year period ending May 31, 2022.

Among the findings:

  • Workers fail to follow state law requiring they begin an investigation into abuse or neglect — and, critically, check on a child’s safety — within 24 hours of a complaint. Rather, department policy requires checking in with the child in question, a potential victim, and that could take up to 72 hours.  A quick response is “essential because the primary and most immediate concern” is the safety of the child, the report read.
  • Staff at times failed to conduct background checks or check names of adults in the same house as the children against a state registry of people who previously neglected or abused children. The department changed its policy since 2018 so that only some adults living with children and in limited circumstances are subject to checks. 
  • In its review, the auditor general’s staff found dozens of felony and misdemeanor convictions — including assault, domestic violence and drug convictions — among adults living with children who were alleged victims of child abuse and neglect. But under the department’s policy change, those adults were not subject to such background checks, according to the report.
  • Staff failed at times to contact mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect — doctors and school administrators, for example — and collect details of the allegations.

In her Monday letter to Ringler, Hertel criticized the findings as politically fueled and deceptive.

Elizabeth Hertel headshot. She is wearing a black top
“Taxpayers deserve to know the significant progress made to keep kids safe and families together,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to the state auditor general. (Courtesy photos)

“Taxpayers deserve to know the significant progress made to keep kids safe and families together,” she wrote.

“It cannot be denied that your process was deceitful and dishonest, leading to a final product that is unhelpful to Michigan’s children,” she continued.

Ringler’s office, through a spokesperson, declined comment.

A larger context

The audit comes as Michigan appears to be nearing an end to a separate and long-running fight over failures to protect children in foster care. The state is close to completing a massive overhaul of its foster care system — the result of an 18-year court battle.

Despite improvements, the state continues to struggle with keeping children safe in care. In 2023, the state found that 437 children were harmed while in the foster care system, and that’s possibly an undercount, according to a team of monitors assigned by a federal court.

The team was assigned after Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, filed a federal lawsuit in 2006 alleging widespread abuse and neglect of children in care. Some children died.

The resulting federal oversight of Michigan’s child welfare system has stretched through three governors, five department directors, dozens of court actions and thousands of pages of legal documents. 

In that time, Michigan has made sweeping improvements in some areas, notably reducing caseloads, improving investigation processes, keeping families and siblings together, and better supporting children as they age out of foster care into adulthood. It unveiled a Keep Kids Safe Action Agenda, which, among other things, established Family Resource Centers to help at-risk families before their children are taken from them. And for children with complex behavioral health needs, the state better matches them to appropriate families and mental health services. 

Still, children already in state care continue to be maltreated, according to the most recent monitor’s report, unsealed during the hearing last week.

In addition to the maltreatment cases that the state substantiated, the monitors said, a random sampling of investigations, they found dozens with significant problems, including information so incomplete that it was impossible to determine whether a child had actually been harmed.

Court monitors also noted a lack of critical record-keeping for children on psychotropic drugs.

All in all, it was a mixed progress report, said Samantha Bartosz, the Children’s Rights attorney.

“From our point of view, (this is) a day to be pleased about the progress and to encourage continued progress, and a day to raise concern with respect to two important safety issues,” Bartosz said.

Hertel v. Ringler

But while the federal oversight is now focused on children once they’re in state care, the new auditor general probe focused on the state’s handling of initial complaints of child abuse and neglect, which can be filed by anyone who suspects wrongdoing by a parent, legal guardian or other person responsible for the child's health and welfare.

Hertel criticized the new audit findings. It’s not the first time that the Whitmer administration has gone head-to-head with Ringler, who was appointed in 2014 under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who was in office when auditors identified flaws in Child Protective Services investigations.

In 2022, Hertel criticized Ringler’s report of COVID deaths in long-term care facilities that the state hadn’t counted — a report that some Republicans used to accuse the state of undercounting nursing home deaths. (Ringler testified later that the discrepancies were because of a difference in methodology, not an intentional undercounting by the state.)

Two months later, Ringler’s office found that the state hired identity thieves to process unemployment claims, among other things. 


And earlier this year, Ringler sent a letter to the Legislature, criticizing proposed deep budget cuts in Whitmer’s original budget proposal — cuts he said would “significantly impair the oversight we provide to you and the public.” (The cut ultimately didn’t happen.)

Hertel told Bridge Michigan and other reporters this week that she agreed with some of the findings of the new report on Child Protective Services. But she said she was perplexed by others, claiming that the auditor general’s own investigation revealed improvements on the part of her staff. 

The department, she said, triages cases based on a risk analysis, and investigates those allegations appropriately.

“We believe that the interpretation (MDHHS policy) that we have is keeping families safe,” Hertel said.

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