Michigan Children May Get More Protection

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The state's child protection system could face tougher oversight from a more independent watchdog after the state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved Ariana's Law, a measure spurred by the death of a two-year-old girl who was abused, beaten, and drowned by her parents.

The legislation would give more power to the Office of Children's Ombudsman, which investigates complaints about children who are placed in foster or adoptive homes due to child abuse and neglect.

The bill, passed 37-0, heads back to the House, which approved it last year, because the Senate made some changes.

Supporters say the bill addresses concerns that the children's ombudsman can't or doesn't thoroughly investigate actions by state agencies due to restrictions and a perceived close relationship between the ombudsman and the governor who appoints him or her.

Under the legislation, the governor's appointment would require Senate approval. Also, while current law limits who can file a complaint, the bill would allow anyone to ask for an investigation of the Family Independence Agency or other child placement agency.

The ombudsman could subpoena records and have greater authority to investigate any child's death that could have resulted from child abuse and neglect. He or she also could look at the Family Independence Agency's computer files and disclose some previously confidential information under certain circumstances.

Overall, supporters say the bill's aim is to increase accountability.

The Senate vote comes nearly five years after Ariana Swinson was killed by her parents in January 2000. She had been removed from her foster family and returned to her biological parents.

When the media and public ran into roadblocks obtaining Swinson's files, Rep. Lauren Hager, R-Port Huron, introduced legislation to overhaul the ombudsman's oversight role over Michigan's child protection agencies.