GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A watchdog agency found Children’s Protective Services in Kent County did not follow policy in its handling of the Yurik Birkenmeyer case before the toddler’s death.
When a child dies who’s had recent contact with Michigan’s child welfare system, the Office of Children’s Ombudsman reviews CPS actions to determine if the state could have better protected the child.
Yurik Birkenmeyer, 19 months old, was found dead in his crib of dehydration in March 2018.
The temperature in the room where he was found was 85 to 90 degrees due to a space heater.
His parents, Alexander Birkenmeyer and Andrea Todd, are both serving prison terms for second-degree murder and child abuse.
The parents had an earlier child who died from sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS, related to co-sleeping. At one point, the state placed Yurik in foster care while the parents took part in educational programs.
But Yurik was returned to his parents five months before his death.
The review by the ombudsman’s office revealed that CPS “did not fully comply with DHHS policies, state law and/or procedures,” regarding its interaction with the Birkenmeyer family in the months leading up to Yurik’s death.
However, the watchdog cannot detail the mistakes made by CPS due to privacy laws.
The OCO can, however, provide the list of recommendations it submitted to CPS to remedy problems found.
Among the recommendations, the OCO urged CPS to review portions of the Children’s Protective Services Manual with caseworkers and supervisors.
“The need to open and monitor a family’s participation in services, along with when it is necessary to escalate an investigation, should be stressed,” wrote Tobin Miller, who was the Acting Children’s Ombudsman at the time of the investigation.
The ombudsman noted the watchdog has “repeatedly raised concerns” over what it sees as CPS’s lack of follow-up when neglect or abuse is substantiated, but the risk of future harm to the child is deemed “low” to “moderate.”
“The OCO recommends if there is a preponderance of evidence (of abuse and/or neglect), and the disposition is a Category III (low to moderate risk), then the case be opened and the family’s participation in services be monitored for at least 90 days,” wrote Miller in the OCO’s Report of Findings and Recommendations.
Currently, in situations where the risk of harm is deemed low to moderate, families must be referred for community-based services, but workers can close the case out.
“Staff currently have discretion, based on case facts and circumstances, to maintain an open CPS case in response to a Category III disposition, if necessary, to reduce risk and ensure child safety,” wrote an official with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which includes CPS.
However, MDHHS is right now re-examining its standardized risk assessment tool, which is a structured checklist through which caseworkers can calculate risk level.
“In partnership with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the department is revalidating its tool for determining future risk of harm following a CPS investigation,” wrote MDHHS in an email exchange with News 8. “The revised tool will be available in late 2020 and will provide staff with the ability to make better decisions about the level of protecting intervention and services needed to keep children safe.”
In its review of the Birkenmeyer abuse neglect case, the ombudsman also urged Kent County CPS to review with workers and supervisors the importance of an investigation’s “thoroughness,” especially in terms of who the caseworker contacts for information.
“The OCO recommends CPS…. add additional examples of information sources, including but not limited to, grandparents, neighbors, school officials, spiritual leaders… adding emphasis to the importance of contacting any and all of these sources who may have information on the (neglect and/or abuse) allegations,” wrote Miller.
But CPS responded by saying that current policy regarding investigative contacts is adequate.
“The thoroughness of investigation contacts is a critical piece of any CPS investigation. However, creating a lengthy list in policy for whom those contacts should include and how expansive the contacts are is more effectively addressed in training,” wrote an MDHHS official in the department’s response to the OCO.
In an email exchange with News 8, MDHHS noted that it has already “implemented systemic changes to improve investigations.”
In early 2019, MDHHS put in place a Supervisory Control Protocol, which requires supervisors to more closely monitor caseworkers’ investigations of suspected abuse and neglect.
“This protocol was implemented in February 2019 and has resulted in fewer errors and more thorough investigations,” wrote an MDHHS official in an email exchange with News 8.
“Protecting the safety and well-being of children is a top priority of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. MDHHS has many dedicated staff members who have devoted their lives to helping children and families who are deeply saddened by the death of any child. The department is focused on making improvements to better protect children and provide better services to families. MDHHS looks at this OCO report and other OCO reports as an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to do better,” wrote MDHHS.