Another abuse death in Michigan: Why doesn’t child protective services want to learn from the past?

Source: The Detroit News

On June 24, a child protective services worker (CPS) accompanied by police officers knocked on the door of a rundown house on Detroit’s west side to conduct a welfare check. Azuradee France answered the door but tried to keep them out. When they entered the house, they found the badly decomposed body of a three-year-old, later identified as Chayse Allen, in a freezer and five more children living in squalor. The media soon learned that Chayse’s mother had been involved with CPS at least seven times as a parent. She had been arrested and convicted for child abuse, serving two years of probation, and her children had been removed but later returned. And yet, there were no procedures in place to protect France’s six children from her lethal violence. And Chayse Allen, described by family members as a sweet, shy and soft-spoken child who had become blind about a year ago, is dead as a result.

There is a common belief that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and that certainly seems to be the case in child maltreatment. Over twenty years ago, Detroit was transfixed when in one week a child was murdered and another suffered irrevocable brain damage, both in the custody of parents who had lost their rights to previous children. This coincidence of horror was enough to spur change–and a new process was created to protect children whose parents had already harmed other children. On September 23, 2000 the directors of the human services and health department agreed to cross-reference the names of parents of newborns with the names of parents who had severely abused their children. The system, which became known as “Birth Match,” is still in effect. This process as designed would not have saved little Chayse, but the story of its imperfect implementation and the state’s declining interest in its application may shed some light on why he too was abandoned by the public officials who were charged with protecting him.

I researched birth match in Michigan while preparing a report on this important tool for child safety, which is being used in only five states. In Michigan, birth match is an automated system that notifies the statewide child abuse hotline when a new child is born to a parent who previously had parental rights terminated in a child protective proceeding, caused the death of a child due to abuse and/or neglect or was manually added to the match list.1 When a birth match report is received, hotline staff must check whether it is accurate and whether there is a pending investigation or open case, and if so, whether the investigative worker is aware of the historical concerns. If there is a pending investigation, the birth match information must be used in assessing the child’s safety.

If the match is accurate and there is not already a pending investigation, the complaint must be assigned for investigation with the allegation of “threatened harm” to the child. “The MDHHS policy manual lays out requirements for assessing threatened harm, including the severity of the past behavior; the length of time since the last incident; the nature of the services received since that incident and whether the parent benefited from those services; a comparison between the historical incident and the current circumstances; and the vulnerability of the child. As in any other investigation in Michigan, if the investigative worker does confirm the allegation of threatened harm, the next step depends on the worker’s assessment of safety and risk. If the child is assessed to be unsafe, the worker must petition the court to remove the child or place the child under supervision at home. If the child is found to be safe but the risk level is considered high or intensive, the worker must open a case to provide services to the family in the home. And if the risk is found to be low or moderate, the worker is directed to refer the family to community–based services.2

At one time Michigan was very proud of its birth match process. Stacey Bladen, the Acting Deputy Director of Michigan’s Children’s Services Administrator gave a presentation about birth match to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in 2014. She displayed a graph showing an increasing number of birth matches and case openings over time. Three other states had adopted birth match by this time, and CECANF in its final report recommended its adoption by all states as a way to protect vulnerable infants born to parents who have harmed other children. (Only Missouri has adopted birth match since CECANF made this recommendation.)

But even while Bladen was trumpeting the virtues of birth match, the Manager of CPS in Michigan was already concerned that tool was not fulfilling its potential due to imperfect implementation. Based on an internal review of 105 cases conducted in 2011 and 2012, he told a Harvard Law School class that he was disturbed about the small proportion of investigations that found threatened harm (only about a quarter) and the even smaller percentage (6.5 percent) that resulted in a court petition. Given that 4.5 percent of all investigations resulted in a court petition at the time, he would have expected a much higher proportion of birth match cases to go to court, considering the gravity of the behaviors committed by the parents and the fact that a parent’s rights were rarely terminated without a long history of agency attempts to assist a family. Based on these findings, the CPS Manager concluded that investigators were not following agency policy; in particular, he concluded that they often failed to assess the severity of the earlier maltreatment and parents’ response to services they had received since that time.

I asked MDHHS for an update of the data provided by Bladen to CECANF and quickly learned that birth match was no longer a point of pride for the agency. MDHHS was no longer routinely tracking birth match cases: the agency had to generate the tables to respond to my request. Moreover, once received, the data displayed some anomalies. The number of birth match complaints dropped from 1,186 in FY2019 to 873 in FY2020 and 515 in FY2021—a drop of more than half between FY2019 and FY2021. Stranger still, MDHHS administrators appeared to be unaware of this sharp drop in birth match complaints and had no explanation for why it occurred. This is particularly odd because these matches occur automatically; one wonders whether the drop was related to the pandemic, but the continued sharp decline in 2021 casts doubt on that theory.

Throughout the period from FY2009 to FY2021, about half the matched families already had an open investigation or case when the match was generated. But the number and percentage of the remaining matches that resulted in an open case have fallen considerably, from 99 cases, or 9 percent of all matches, in FY2012, to only 30 cases, or three percent of matches, in FY2020. Child removals also dropped from 41 removals, or 3 percent of matches, in FY2012 to 11 removals, or one percent of matches, in FY2020. MDHHS was unwilling to provide any theories about why these changes occurred. Moreover it appeared that agency leaders were not interested in the fate of birth match, as evidenced by their failure to track the data themselves, or to discuss birth match in their published reports or press releases. Furthermore, Michigan’s policies concerning birth match are currently “under review” as part of a “front end redesign” of the state’s child protection system.

Birth match started in an atmosphere of hope. In a heartfelt essay, a blogger named Donna Pendergast expressed her feeling that “As horrific as the murder of Miracle Jackson was, it can be said that something good came of it,” citing the new practice of birth match. “May [Miracle’s] legacy be that other children are spared her horrific fate.” Unfortunately, Miracle’s legacy appears to be fading.

Even as it was envisioned, Miracle’s legacy of birth match was not broad enough to save Chayse Allen. His birth would not have been matched because his mother’s parental rights were never terminated, she was not found to have caused a child’s death, and she probably would not have been added manually to the birth match list. But the failure to learn from the past which has hampered the implementation of birth match is on full display in the agency’s dealings with Chayse’s mother. As media outlets have revealed, Azudee France had a history of child welfare involvement including at least seven separate episodes. Court records obtained by WXYZ, Detroit’s ABC affiliate, and the Detroit News showed three CPS contacts in 2016 and two in 2017 due to “physical abuse, improper supervision, sexual abuse, failure to protect, and physical neglect.” The records also show that at least the allegations received in November 2017 were substantiated for physical abuse and improper supervision. In 2018, France admitted to assaulting her two year old nephew, who was staying with her temporarily, leaving him with “swollen lips, a black eye, a contusion on the forehead, and bruises to his rib cage and both ankles,” described as “severe physical abuse” in a court document. She was charged with felony child abuse and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, serving two years of probation.

In April, 2020, MDHHS filed a petition requesting court approval to take custody of France’s newborn son, who was born on April 7, 2020. France’s other four children were already in foster care, apparently due to her conviction for abusing her nephew. The petition stated that France “has not yet rectified the conditions that brought her other children into care” and that she “continues to have untreated mental health concerns.” It also stated that France had a history of postpartum depression and threatened to harm her newborn son.

It appears that the MDHHS petition to take custody of the baby was granted, but three months later following a hearing on August 24, 2020, all five children were returned to France. The court referee3 stated that “Mother has completed parenting classes. … mother is currently in therapy…. mother’s home is suitable.” France’s sister Azunte Sauls told Detroit News reporter George Hunter that she could not imagine how France’s home was deemed suitable as it was filthy and “not suitable for any adult.” And It’s hard to understand how the serious and deep-seated issues outlined in the petition could have been resolved in three months.

Sauls told Hunter that CPS workers came to her sister’s home again last year, to investigate a report of a burn to Chayse. But apparently the investigators, unfazed by France’s history, accepted her explanation that he had burned his hand on some noodles. Sauls and her mother also reported that they and other relatives called CPS many times after incidents of suspected abuse, but to no avail. France subsequently gave birth to a sixth child, who was two months old at the time of Chayse’s death.

When is enough enough? When does an agency accept that it is time to stop waiting for a parent to change and place the children in a safe environment, preferably with loving extended family members? Chayse’s aunt told WXYZ that she had custody of Chayse and his siblings when he was two months old and all of the children were removed from their their mother after her conviction for child abuse. “She should have never gotten her kids back after that,” another aunt told reporter Kimberly Craig of WXYZ. Michigan law allows a parent’s rights to a child to be terminated if “there is a reasonable likelihood, based on the conduct or capacity of the child’s parent, that the child will be harmed if he or she is returned to the home of the parent.” That argument could certainly have been made for any of France’s children long before Chayse was killed.

The desire to let parents start anew with each new child or report is one reason why birth match has been adopted by only four states and appears to be so unpopular among the current DHHS leadership. Moreover, the current child welfare climate is exacerbating the failure to protect children, especially children of Black or Indigenous origin. The concern about racial disparities in child welfare involvement may be discouraging agencies from protecting vulnerable children like Chayse and his siblings.

Azudee France has been charged with with felony murder, first-degree child abuse, torture, and concealing the death of an individual in the death of Chayse, and the children are now with relatives. Maybe by his suffering and death, Chayse was able to save the lives of one or more of his siblings. But they have endured experiences that will leave scars for a lifetime. And it’s all because CPS was unable or unwilling to learn from the past, as its imperfect and waning implementation of birth match illustrates so well.

Notes

  1. The provision for manual additions allowed the inclusion of adults who committed an egregious act of maltreatment but did not have their rights terminated, or who harmed a child that was not their own child.
  2. It is not totally clear how “threatened harm” can be found and yet the risk level can be determined to be low or moderate.
  3. A referee is an attorney who holds hearings, examines witnesses, and makes recommendations to a judge. 

The Detroit Prevention Project: Preventing child maltreatment by supporting at-risk families

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The current mainstream discourse in child welfare is all about prevention: reaching families before maltreatment occurs instead of intervening afterwards. Many jurisdictions pay lip service to this mantra by making services available to high-risk communities but not targeting these services to the families who need them most. The Detroit Prevention Project, launched by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in conjunction with an innovative organization called Brilliant Detroit, is different. It reaches out to families at risk of child maltreatment with an intensive case management and peer mentorship intervention aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect.

“One of the top priorities of the new administration when it comes to the child welfare system is to connect with families and provide them with support and resources before there is a need for Children’s Protective Services to file court petitions,” said JooYeun Chang, who served previously as the head of the Children’s Bureau and Managing Director of Casey Family Programs and came to Michigan in 2019. “We believe children are better off when they are with their families as long as we can work with families to make sure the children are safe.”

Interest in preventing child maltreatment before it occurs has been increasing in child welfare. But the drop in CPS reports under virtual schooling, which deprives the current system of its main trigger for action, has led to even more interest in prevention.  In Michigan, DHHS had already begun to formulate plans for shifting toward a more proactive approach but COVID-19 accelerated those efforts, according to a recent article from Second Wave Media.

The new program, called the Detroit Prevention Project, pairs families at risk for child maltreatment with two workers, each performing a different function. Peer mentors, also known as “parent partners,” are community members who have experience in navigating the child welfare system in Detroit. They receive training in mental health peer support and how to work within MDHHS systems. Benefits navigators connect families to community resources such as food, housing assistance, education, and employment. The use of peer mentors or counselors is a newer approach in child welfare that has been shown to produce positive effects on outcomes associated with reduced child maltreatment. While many other programs use either peer mentors or benefits navigators, combining the two is an innovative approach.

DHHS decided to pilot its new approach in two of the zip codes with the highest rates of referrals of child abuse and neglect in the state. They chose to work with Brilliant Detroit, an organization founded in 2015 to “provide a radically new approach to kindergarten readiness in neighborhoods,” according to its website. The program has created family centers in neighborhoods which attempt to provide families of children aged 0 to 8 with all the services (emphasizing health, family support and education) needed to ensure school readiness and provided needed family support. Co-Founder and CEO Cindy Eggleton was awarded a 2021 Purpose Prize from AARP for her work in founding and directing Brilliant Detroit.

Families are also given access to a variety of programs already offered by Brilliant Detroit. These range from anger management and GED classes to nutrition workshops and fitness activities. Also offered are community based playgroups, intensive tutoring for the kids, family literacy programs, “parent cafes” to help parents connect, workforce and financial literacy training, free sports for children, and more.

The program is strictly voluntary and is being offered to a group of families drawn from two sources. DHHS is referring families that were the subject of a child protective services investigation in the past year based on their score on its Structured Decision Making (SDM) Tool. SDM is an actuarial assessment system, used by many states, to assess risk and make decisions about how to handle a case. Families that had an investigation closed with a score of III (evidence of abuse or neglect but a low or moderate level of risk to the child) or IV (insufficient evidence to show that abuse occurred but future risk of harm to the child) are normally referred to community services. These families will be invited to participate in the Detroit Prevention Project. Brilliant Detroit is also offering the program to families that it already knows from its neighborhood work.

The goals of the program are as follows, according to the document provided by Brilliant Detroit:

  • Reduce the number of at-risk families in zip codes 48205 and 48288 that are reported from child abuse and neglect;
  • Align existing MDHHS programs with Brilliant Detroit’s network of partners to create a comprehensive continuum of services.
  • Provide data on the efficacy of the model
  • Construct a model that can be scaled up through additional funding and community based partnerships.

The Detroit Prevention Project was jointly developed with leadership from the Skillman Foundation and Casey Family Programs. Skillman suggested that MDHHS talk to some of their partners on the ground, including Brilliant Detroit, to flesh out the ideas, which led to the partnership. The funding is being provided by MDHHS, Casey and Skillman. When it reaches full scale, the program will serve 400 families.

The Detroit Prevention Project embodies the prevailing sentiment in child welfare in favor of preventing abuse and neglect before they occur. This push has been led from the top by the Children’s Bureau, where Chang’s successor Jerry Milner has been a forceful advocate for this approach. Many states have responded with enthusiasm and new programs. However, some states have created new programs (like the Family Success Centers recently opened by the District of Columbia based on New Jersey’s model) without targeting them to children that are at risk of child abuse or neglect. Without a systematic effort to reach out to the families who need these services most, there is no assurance that these families will receive the services.

DHHS might want to consider using the Detroit Prevention Model to reach further upstream, following the example of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Allegheny County’s Hello Baby program reaches out to parents of new babies to offer them a tiered set of services. Families with the most complex needs based on a predictive risk model are offered the most intensive approach which, similar to the Detroit Prevention Program, matches each family with a peer counselor and a case manager. Given Brilliant Detroit’s mission of focusing on children from zero to eight and DHHS’s focus on prevention, this would be a natural step for both partners.

Participation in the Detroit Prevention Program is strictly voluntary, which means that some of the most troubled families will refuse to participate. Research indicates that it is difficult to engage the highest-risk families in voluntary services. We hope that the program will collect and report on the number of families refusing to participate and track their future maltreatment reports, in order to assess the extent of this problem. If it is extensive, leaders may need to consider using a family’s refusal to participate as the trigger to initiate an investigation.

Michigan DHHS should be commended for the implementation of the Detroit Prevention Program. We hope that child welfare leaders in other states are watching this initiative carefully. We also hope that DHHS will subject this program to intensive evaluation so that we can learn from this experiment experiment.