Sunday, July 17, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: What they won’t be talking about in federal court Monday

Sometime tomorrow (Monday), according to one news account, there may be an announcement about a new modified consent decree between the Michigan Department of Human Services and the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights. If it happens, it’s likely to be a pretty disgusting spectacle.

On one side: the director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, Maura Corrigan will be there.  In her previous job on the Michigan Supreme Court, she turned the court’s website into a propaganda organ for adoption as the only form of permanence.  While serving on one of those pointless Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions she walked out during the one part of one session in which birth parents told their stories.

On the other side: someone from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights.  Since they, too, view permanence almost exclusively in terms of adoption, and they don’t care about keeping families together either, there’s not much to argue about, is there?

So here’s a reminder of what neither side will be talking about.  It was written in response to a request for statements of support by organizers of a Speak Out in support of Maryanne Godboldo, whose children was taken needlessly after Godboldo, in consultation with the child’s doctor, took her off psychiatric mediation.

            I am sorry I cannot be with you in person; I am honored to be with you in spirit.

            Maryanne Godboldo has been doing what the overwhelming majority of parents – that giant majority who do not abuse or neglect their children - do in one way or another, for as long as they are parents: She is fighting for her child.

            Maryanne Godboldo did not volunteer for this fight.  You might say she was drafted.  But in fighting with such determination and courage for her own child, she has become a leader in a fight for thousands of children all over America needlessly torn by child protective services agencies from everyone they know and love.

            Just last week, we learned about Prince and Charlomane Leonard in Houston.  When Prince Leonard could not get full-time work as a welder, there was no housing he could afford where the family could live safely.  So they moved to a gated community – the storage shed they had rented for some of their belongings.  Prince Leonard built shelves and a loft, installed heating and air conditioning.  The children were happy and healthy.  Then the helping hand of child protective services struck.  They offered no help of any kind, they just took away the children on the spot.

            How common is that?  Three major studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing.

            But what about Michigan?

            ●Michigan is a state so backward, that a former District Attorney in Oakland County tore apart a family and tried to jail the parents on charges of sexual abuse based on something called “facilitated communication” – essentially a glorified Ouija board.

            ●Michigan is a state where a study of case records found that when a white family is asked about drug use and says there is none, the case record would say “no history of drug abuse.”  When the same question produces the same answer in a black family, the file would  say “denies history of drug abuse.”

            ●Michigan is a state where millions of dollars are paid to agencies that are supposed to provide in-home help to families. Some of the agencies keep the money, and then refuse to go into Black neighborhoods.

            ●Michigan is a state where, if a family makes the mistake of calling DHS because they don’t have heat in the winter, all they’re likely to get is a cold house with a child abuse investigator at the door.

            ● Michigan is the state where, in an anonymous survey, 40 percent of juvenile court  judges admitted they lied about one of their most fundamental responsibilities.  Under federal law, states are required to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together and avoid placing children in foster care.  A judge – a real, live, judge – is supposed to certify either that reasonable efforts were made, or that there was no way to do it safely.  If they don’t at least check one of those boxes on a form, foster care in that case is not eligible for federal funds.

            In that survey I mentioned, 40 percent of the judges admitted that they lied, and said reasonable efforts had been made when they didn’t really believe it themselves.

            ●Michigan is a state where, as is discussed in our first report on Michigan child welfare, on page 52, if one parent – even a non-custodial parent - “admits” maltreatment, the other parent is denied a trial, forced to do whatever DHS wants her or him do and may lose the child forever; all without a court ever determining if that parent ever did anything wrong.

            A challenge to that law is heading for the Michigan Supreme Court.  A lawyer for the father – a father who didn’t even have custody of the children - submitted a brief citing the many times the U.S. Supreme Court and courts in Michigan have written decisions emphasizing that children need to be raised by their own parents, decisions making clear that this bond is sacred, and should be severed only in the most serious cases.  In its brief in reply, Michigan DHS dismissed those noble statements as, and this is a direct quote:  “platitudes.”

            So that’s what Maryanne Godboldo, her daughter, and so many others like them are up against: a child welfare agency, run by a former state supreme court judge, no less – that dismisses some of the most important writing in American jurisprudence as “platitudes.”


            But, of course, that’s not all DHS dismisses.  DHS also dismisses notions like due process of law.

            For decades I’ve written about how there are no real checks and balances in child welfare – how anything these agencies want is rubber-stamped.

            I thought it was just a figure of speech.

            But now, thanks to Maryanne Godboldo, her lawyers, and some very good journalists at Channel 7, we know that in Michigan, it’s literally true.  No real live judge signed the order to remove Maryanne’s daughter from her home.  The order was, literally, rubber-stamped.  The same thing happened in the Mike’s Hard Lemonade case.

            And consider this: That DHS bureaucracy doesn’t come cheap.  All those investigators and foster care workers and group homes and institutions and court hearings (not to mention the occasional SWAT team and helicopter) cost a lot of money.  And the whole process takes a lot of time.

            All the time, money and effort wasted doing so much harm to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter is being stolen from some child in real danger who really does need to be taken from her or his home.  So those children are overlooked.  And that’s the real reason for the horror story cases of real abuse that make headlines.

            But you’re not just up against DHS.


            Governors, legislators and DHS directors come and go, but always lurking in the shadows are scores of private agencies paid for every day they hold your children in foster care.  To use the late columnist Jack Newfield’s phrase, they are the “permanent government” of Michigan child welfare.  They are the ones who stand most strongly opposed to doing anything to keep families together.  They are the ones who oppose programs to keep Black children in their own communities.

            In 2006, the head of a trade association for private agencies told the Michigan Legislature that impoverished black children are better off far away with total strangers than close by with their own kin, because the strangers, he said, live in better neighborhoods with better schools. (See our first Michigan report, page 61).

            Now consider all the money that was wasted just on institutionalizing Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter.  That money could have gone to rent subsidies, so families aren’t destroyed because they can’t afford housing, or day care, so children are not taken on “lack of supervision” charges.

            But you’re not just up against the private agencies, either.

            Tomorrow, there is going to be another kind of court hearing.  According to one news account, the hearing will discuss a plan to revise the consent decree between DHS and a group of lawyers who operate under the Orwellian name “Children’s Rights.”

            The people at CR, as I call them, are good people.  They really think they are helping children.  But they’re not helping children in Michigan.
            I say the group’s name is “Orwellian” because I don’t know many children who crave the “right” to be torn from everyone they know and love.  But CR has done nothing to pressure Michigan to do more to keep families together.  In fact, CR’s settlement with DHS has made things worse.

            The Michigan settlement has sent DHS on a hiring binge, hiring more child abuse investigators and foster care workers – paid for, in part, by cutting programs to help keep families together.

Few children are demanding the “right” to be taken from grandma and grandpa  because those grandparents can’t comply with ten single-spaced pages of hypertechnical licensing requirements – requirements so absurd that the apartment in Hawaii where President Obama was raised by his grandmother would not have qualified.

            As a result, more than a thousand children have been expelled from the homes of grandparents and other relatives across Michigan.

            Yet CR won’t even say who invited them to Michigan in the first place.

And of course CR stands silent in the face of everything that has been done to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, refusing to stand up for her children’s rights.

            So I hope that you will take your protests to the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children’s Rights as well.  Send them polite, civil e-mails (don’t let them divert attention from what they’ve done to how you’re complaining about it).  Tell them you want to know who invited them into Michigan in the first place.  Tell them to speak out against what is being done to Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter and all the children like her. And tell them to either fix their consent decree to address wrongful removal – or get out of Michigan.
            And there is one more thing I will ask of you.

            After Maryanne Godboldo and her daughter win this fight – and they will – don’t stop fighting.  Please keep up the fight for all the other children like them.  Or, as Joe Hill said nearly a century ago: Don’t grieve. Organize.

            Other cities have grassroots organizations of families fighting to reform their child welfare systems. You know some of them, in Philadelphia, in Los Angeles and in New York.  Detroit doesn’t have one – yet.  You can become that organization.  Those other organizations, and NCCPR, stand ready to help.  

            Thank you for your courage, thank you for your determination.