STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Michigan's rate of child abuse and neglect: bad and getting worse

Michigan League for Public Policy

Child abuse and neglect appear to be increasing in Michigan. A new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy says more than 33,000 children in Michigan were victims of abuse or neglect in 2011. That’s an 18 percent increase compared to 2005.

There is a dispute over the exact size of the increase. 

"We’re not saying that there isn’t an uptick," says Dave Akerly, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Human Services. "We’re saying that from our standpoint, we believe that the uptick isn’t as dramatic as it would appear to be."

He says the numbers in the Michigan League report are a little misleading because a lot changed at DHS between 2005 and 2011. One of the things that changed is how cases get reported.

So, Akerly says instead of there being a huge increase in abuse and neglect, we may just be seeing a more accurate picture of abuse and neglect.

And no matter how you look at that, it’s an ugly picture.

This is not in dispute: There were more than 33,000 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in 2011. That’s one out of every 100 kids in the state.

And those were just the confirmed cases. About one in 13 kids lived in a home where there was an investigation.

"I felt like it was an intrusion," says Crystal King. Her family went through a CPS investigation several years ago. King says she had a drug addiction at the time. She thought she was keeping it separated from her four kids. She wasn’t physically abusive. She didn’t leave them home alone.

"I had to come to terms with, 'abuse, neglect,'" King says. "When you see that on your paperwork and you're going into court, and they’re reading off the things that you did wrong, you know, something in you just boils. Because, you know, I just didn’t see it that way then."

King’s kids were taken away and put in foster care for a year. She says it was a long year. You often hear complaints about the child welfare system in Michigan. But King says, for her, the system worked.

"I know people often hear, CPS, Child Protective Services and go, ‘Oh my God, they’re just gonna come and take my kids,'" King says. "And from my experience, they really worked with me."

King’s story shows the good that can come out of a child welfare system. It forced her to deal with her addiction. It forced her to be a better parent, and to learn to ask for help. These were big lessons, and they paid off for her kids. Now King is a recovery coach at Arbor Circle, which offers mental health and addiction counseling in Grand Rapids.

But for a family to even get to the point where there’s CPS involvement – it means there’s already a problem.

On a conference call last week, Jane Zehnder-Merrell of the Michigan League for Public Policy said that many of the newest abuse and neglect cases were the lowest level kind of cases. They could have been avoided. 

"If we could have reached those families before the abuse, neglect occurred, it would have been far better for the family and the child," says Zehnder-Merrell.

But the system that’s in place for helping kids doesn’t emphasize prevention as much as it could. Last year, the state had to eliminate a pilot prevention project because of a lack of funding. That project was specifically designed to find and help at-risk families before they became another abuse and neglect statistic.

Before the latest statistics came out, Michigan already had the 9th highest rate of child abuse and neglect in the country. The numbers are only getting worse. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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