Investigation into death of 5-year-old uncovers startling details about Michigan’s welfare system

In Michigan, one child dies in or related to the child welfare system every five days

Ethan Belcher’s aunts had called Child Protective Services, concerned about his safety in his parents’ home.

After running into roadblocks in getting answers about what CPS did to care for the 5-year-old boy, Local 4 started asking questions about cases in the system.

The state revealed they’d investigated hundreds of deaths of children involved with Michigan’s Child Welfare System.

As part of our investigation, we’ve learned the state puts three agencies into that category:

  1. Child Protective Services
  2. Adoption
  3. Foster care

They are required to report child deaths, and those preliminary reports are investigated. Most of those are not child abuse related, but the numbers of child deaths from suspected abuse are still chilling.

Belcher died two weeks ago, and prosecutors charged his parents, Valerie Hamilton and step-father Shane Shelton with felony murder and torture.

Read: Mother of 5-year-old boy killed in deadly child abuse case back in Detroit court

Based on the Michigan Office of Children’s Ombudsman numbers, it turns out that the death of the 5-year-old is all too common.

In its most recent annual reports, the OCO told Local 4 that state law requires Michigan Child Welfare agencies to report child deaths when there is prior involvement within 24 months preceding the death.

Each case gets investigated.

Between 2020 and 2021, the OCO received 741 preliminary death alerts. And most of those are not due to child abuse.

But, the Ombudsman’s office did told Local 4 in a statement:

“Child abuse and neglect were highly suspected in 135 of the 741 child deaths in 2020 and 2021.”

The disturbing math says in Michigan, one child dies in or related to the child welfare system every five days.

For some perspective, we turned to someone who deals with child welfare regularly, Claudnyse Holloman, who directs the Genesee County non-profit called Voices of Children.

“It is horrifying, it’s outrageous, it’s as a shock to the conscience, and but what I recognize is that it’s 135 kids, and we as a community have to do something,” said Holloman. “It’s not just Child Protective Services. It’s not just those of us working in the system.”

Belcher’s family did intervene, and he ended up being removed from the home and then put back.

Read: Deadly abuse of 5-year-old boy has Michigan senator working to change CPS information law

State Senator Jim Runestad is furious after introducing a bill last week looking for more cps transparency.

“It’s appalling, and what is so disheartening is we can’t get information,” said Runestad. “I would like to know every one of these cases what went wrong? Was there a catastrophic failure, as in Ethan Belcher’s case? We simply don’t know, so we’ve got to rip open this system.”

Suzanna Shkreli, the Michigan Children’s Ombudsman, said in a statement:

“The death of Ethan Belcher is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to his family and friends. My office received notice of Ethan’s death on Jan. 22 and has begun the investigative process. At the conclusion of the investigation, any recommendations for changes in the child welfare system are sent to the appropriate agencies and published for the public to view.”, concerned about his safety in his parents’ home.

About the Authors:

Rod Meloni is an Emmy Award-winning Business Editor on Local 4 News and a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional.

Brandon Carr is a digital content producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with WDIV Local 4 since November 2021. Brandon is the 2015 Solomon Kinloch Humanitarian award recipient for Community Service.