The deaths of three children within days of each other have increased calls to expand access to Children’s Protective Services records in Michigan, but the effort faces plenty of hurdles.
Sen. Jim Runestad R-White Lake, this week introduced a bill that would allow the media and legislators access to the records, which are kept by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The call follows the death of a 5-year-old Ethan Belcher and a Pontiac mother, Monica Cannady, and her two young boys who were found in a field, dead from hypothermia. Child Protective Services workers had interactions with both families before the deaths.
Because records are shielded, lawmakers can’t investigate if mistakes were made.
“What we are seeing is a disaster,” said Runestad in prepared remarks.
“We must ensure that CPS can be properly investigated when necessary. It cannot be allowed to operate in total secrecy when there are innocent lives at risk.”
Ethan Belcher was found dead at his Lincoln Park home on Jan. 22. Relatives called Child Protective Services numerous times after they suspected that he was being tortured.
“It bothers me a lot that things are swept under the rug and that they are kept ‘hush-hush’,” said Ethan’s aunt, Ashley Belcher during a press conference with Runestad.
Ashley Belcher said she first called Child Protective Services when Ethan was a baby after seeing a picture of him, worried that he was too skinny.
But CPS assured her that he was not malnourished, The Detroit News reported. Then in 2021 she took him to the hospital after it appeared that he had been beaten “from head to toe,” she said.
His mother, Valerie Hamilton and his step-father, Shane Shelton were both charged with murder, torture and child abuse for Ethan’s death and for allegedly abusing his 3-year-old little brother.
Children’s Protective Services is exempt from FOIA laws. Likewise, Michigan law for decades has kept the files confidential and makes it a misdemeanor to release them.
Some advocates say such privacy is necessary, and Runestad’s bill faces dim prospects in the Legislature, which is now controlled by Democrats.
“Children have the right to have the same privacy as adults,” said Claudnyse Holloman, CEO of Voices for Children, an organization that provides resources to abused children based in Genesee County.
“We have to limit the amount of people who have access to those records. I understand there is a compelling public need for information like that and I think there is a way to share the amount of child abuse cases we’ve had and the different types of child abuse out there.”
Child records are not public, but some people can access the records, including medical professionals, a child protective agency or police, parent/guardian, and a court.
Runestad said his legislation would ensure privacy remains and keep the misdemeanor penalty in place. He said he began drafting the proposal following the Jan. 15 freezing deaths of Cannady, and her two sons, Kyle Milton, 9, and Malik Milton, 3.
“Strict privacy laws are necessary and rightly protected when it comes to these personal situations, but there must also be room for investigation and oversight in order to prevent tragedies and to provide justice when needed,” said Runestad.
Michigan is not an outlier.
The federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act requires records to stay confidential and requires that reports and records only be available to limited people or agencies or for limited purposes, said Bob Wheaton, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that oversees Child Protective Services.
The act provides funding to state child protective services as long as they maintain a certain level of confidentiality with cases.
“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,” Wheaton wrote in an email.
Wheaton added that the department “endeavors to be as transparent as the law allows.”
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