Thursday, July 21, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: DHS needs a “platitude” adjustment

            In every field of law, certain decisions become touchstones.  These decisions state fundamental principles that form the foundation for interpreting the law in their field.  Sometimes they are cited by both sides.  That’s because, typically, the sides don’t dispute the principles themselves, only how they apply to a particular case.

            So, for example, in Troxel v. Granville, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

“[S]o long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e. is fit), there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent’s children.”

            In Parham v. J.R., the Supreme Court said:

 “[T]he statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition.”

            The decisions are two of several quoted in a brief submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court on behalf of a father challenging the termination of his parental rights.

            But, apparently, the Michigan Department of Human Services and its new director, Maura Corrigan, disagree with these bedrock principles. Because in a stunning and scary statement in their reply brief, DHS and the Michigan Attorney General dismiss these principles as “platitudes.”

            The notion that there should be some reasonable limits on government intrusion into the family is, according to DHS, a platitude.  So is the idea that there should be a presumption that, when it comes to making decisions for children, a fit parent knows best.

            This also is one more indication of how child welfare crosses ideological lines in unusual ways.  Corrigan, the DHS Director (and former State Supreme Court Justice) who now apparently is ready to embrace the above “statist notion” is a conservative Republican.  But perhaps that’s no surprise, since Corrigan also has remained silent about recent revelations that orders to take away children, orders that are supposed to be signed by real, live judges, are merely rubber-stamped, allegedly by DHS workers.

            The dismissal of fundamental principles as “platitudes” is even more frightening since DHS is defending a law that any child welfare agency that really cared about the welfare of children would be fighting to strike down.  It is a law, possibly unique to Michigan, which says that if one parent “admits” to maltreating a child, the other parent loses all right to contest those same allegations.

            Of course, it is reasonable that, if one parent really is abusing a child, that should be enough for the state to intervene to protect the children.  That’s not the issue here.  The Michigan law goes far beyond that.  In Michigan a non-custodial parent could “admit” to “maltreating” a child and the custodial parent would be stripped of all rights to contest any allegations. (There is a detailed discussion in our first report on Michigan child welfare, on page 52.)

            In the case at issue, the mother did have custody and she “admitted” neglecting her children.  But the father was entirely innocent.  He wasn’t even living in the home.  He had never been accused of maltreating anyone and had no other problems that would make him unfit.  In short, he would be an excellent placement for the children.  Yet he was required to jump through a whole series of hoops without a shred of evidence that he needed the “counseling” “parenting classes” etc.  He had no chance to challenge these conditions.  And when he didn’t manage to jump through every one of the hoops exactly the way DHS wanted, the trial court itself ordered DHS to seek termination of parental rights. 

            At first, even DHS didn’t agree – telling the trial court the move to termination, after the children had been in foster care for seven months – was premature.  But DHS followed orders and now is fighting to uphold the termination, and the horrendous law on which it’s based – in part with that claim about “platitudes.”

            It’s one more reason to worry about the fate of Michigan’s vulnerable children with DHS being run by Corrigan.  Other reasons range from her lame attempt to defend DHS’ actions in cases like the seizure of Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter and the “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case (if you really want to see platitudes, check out her op ed in the Detroit Free Press) to her turning the Michigan Supreme Court website into a propaganda vehicle for adoption, with all other options for giving children permanence ignored, to her walking out on parents when they had their one opportunity to address one of those obligatory blue-ribbon commissions states name to study child welfare. (Details are in our first report on Michigan child welfare, starting on page 54.)

            Obviously, Corrigan didn’t write the brief.  There are plenty of lawyers in the Attorney General’s office and at DHS for that.  We don’t know if Corrigan saw it before it was filed – though it would be disturbing if she allowed it to be filed without seeing it first.  Either way, as DHS director, she’s responsible for it until and unless she repudiates it.