Michigan department announces child care reforms after death

Foster care challenges (Capitol News Service)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan officials announced a series of emergency rules Thursday after a 16-year-old boy was restrained at a youth facility and died two days later of cardiac arrest.

Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo has since lost its contract with the state to care for youth in the state’s foster care and juvenile justice systems and had its license to operate suspended.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced emergency rules that prohibit state-licensed child-caring institutions from using dangerous restraints that involve placing children face-down while they are being restrained or any other restraint that restricts breathing. Families and the state must be be given timely notification when a restraint is used.

Cornelius Fredericks was pushed to the floor on April 29 and held down by at least seven male staff members because he threw a sandwich in the cafeteria at Lakeside Academy. Surveillance video shows that the men sat or laid on the teen's chest for about 12 minutes.

A lawsuit filed by the Fredericks estate in June alleges that he screamed “I can’t breathe” before going into cardiac arrest and dying two days later.

The death was ruled a homicide and the doctor who performed the autopsy said Fredericks died of asphyxia. Three former Lakeside Academy staff members face charges of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse in Fredericks' death.

Change is more than just addressing bad actors, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said at a news conference announcing the emergency rules. He said the entire system has to transform to afford children who are in the state's care the same health and happiness everyone wants for their own children.

“We are moving toward the goal of ending the use of restraints in institutional settings,” Gordon said. “Restraints are too often used as an easy way to control youth, in place of the harder, but unnecessary work of evidence-based practices that help young people address mental health challenges and heal and overcome trauma.”

Gordon said Fredericks' death has forced the state to face its institutional racism, much like George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody led to a national reckoning about racial injustice. Fredericks, who was Black, did not get the care he deserved, he said.

“In our child welfare system, we have an acute responsibility to do all we can to keep families, particularly Black families safely intact,” Gordon said. “When a child does come into care, we need to make that care as family-like as possible. That is what Cornelius Fredericks deserved and did not get it, and what other young people deserve and must get.”

Data collected from facilities on the use of restraints will be compiled and include information on the race of children who are restrained, including a designation for indigenous children.

Lakeside Academy had a series of violations of previous restraint rules, MDHHS Children’s Services Agency Executive Director JooYeun Chang said. The facility would commonly respond by firing staffers who violated the rules, but there needs to be a better statewide effort to train facilities on trauma-informed deescalation.

Chang said following Fredericks' death, the department did a review of every licensed child care facility and looked to see how many in the past two years had even one serious safety incident or repeated safety incidents, with 76 facilities marked and given new guidance and assistance.


Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.