Sunday, November 30, 2008

Paying the price for Michigan’s adoption obsession

    Perhaps it wasn't the best timing.

    I'm beginning work on what will be at least one report on child welfare in Michigan for release early next year, and it so happened that the very day reporters fanned out across that state to do their feature stories on Michigan Adoption Day was the day I sat down to reread scores of newspaper stories about the horrible death of Ricky Holland. What was shocking, even on second reading, was the extent to which the fanaticism for adoption-at-all-costs which has permeated child welfare practice in Michigan for so many years created an almost willful blindness to the danger awaiting Ricky.

    There is no question that Ricky's birth mother, Casey Jo Caswell, had problems – two in particular: chronic poverty and a tendency to hook up with the wrong kind of man; with the second problem probably closely related to the first. But there is no allegation that Ricky's birth mother ever abused him. None. In fact, it was Caswell herself who loved Ricky so much that she didn't want the boy to have to live in an environment of poverty and instability. So she sought out the only alternative she could think of: She asked the Michigan child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services, to take him, just until she could get on her feet and get housing and a job.

    In a civilized society, the child welfare agency would have said: "No. We don't tear apart families just because they're poor. We take away the poverty, not the child. We'll help you with housing and help you find a job. We'll help you become independent enough to avoid depending on lousy men." Perhaps that wouldn't have worked. But it's what a civilized society would try first – and if it had been tried, Ricky Holland might be alive today.

    But, of course, it doesn't work that way; certainly not in Michigan. And once you "surrender" your child to a government child welfare agency, the agency decides when you are fit to get the child back. (Yeah, yeah, I know the party line from the agencies: A judge makes that decision. But judges almost never turn down child welfare agencies.) In the case of Ricky Holland, who was only three when he was surrendered and was white, making him easy to adopt, the decision was that his mother would never get him back.

    After all, the Michigan Department of Human Services thought it had found the perfect home for Ricky – Tim and Lisa Holland – white, middle class, with a big house in the suburbs. Not only did DHS overlook one warning sign after another, the caseworker assigned to the Hollands even set up a personal baby pipeline for them – moving to confiscate every other child of Casey's at birth, and promptly deliver those children to the Hollands. In each case, of course, the placement had the potential to help Michigan collect a bounty of $4,000 to $8,000 under the federal so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. (The maximum bounty is now $12,000 to $13,000). And in each case, the adoption helped give Michigan DHS numbers to brag about in those Adoption Day feature stories.

    In fact, the pipeline didn't stop until the Hollands wanted it to stop. We know that thanks to one reporter who truly saw Casey Jo Caswell as a three-dimensional human being, and thought her story was worth telling early on: Karen Bouffard of the Detroit News. In her story, "The boy who had no chance," available from the News' paid archive, Bouffard writes:

Caswell said ... the state social worker, never counseled her on continuing her education or job training. She says she didn't get any offers of housing assistance. In arguing to sever Caswell's parental rights, the caseworker said she didn't offer housing assistance because, since Ricky was in foster care, Caswell didn't qualify for such help.

Caswell also says she was not counseled about obtaining birth control, or to stop having babies. "The only thing she ever said to me was after (her last baby) was born," Caswell said. "She told me, 'You have to stop having babies because the Hollands don't want any more.' " [Emphasis added].

    But here's where the story moves from typical child welfare agency class bias to jaw dropping willful blindness:

    One reason the Ricky Holland story got so much attention is that it had a classic element: the fake "disappearance." You know how it works: The parents – whether birth, foster or adoptive – claim their child has disappeared; they go on television to plead for his return, a massive search follows - In the Holland case, there even was a segment of America's Most Wanted - but all the while the parents know exactly where the child is – or rather the child's body. The truth was, Lisa, who had made Ricky's life a living Hell for years, ended it with blows to the boy's head from a hammer. The boy lingered, semi-conscious for a week. Then Tim Holland stuffed the body – or perhaps the still-alive little boy – into trash bags and dumped him in a pond.

    But here's the part that really makes you wonder just how out-of-hand adoption fanaticism has gotten in Michigan. Ricky "disappeared" on July 2, 2005. Even as police suspicion of the Hollands grew, DHS made no move to take Ricky's siblings from the Hollands even temporarily, as they almost certainly would have done in the case of impoverished Black birth parents under similar circumstances. But even if one can buy that decision, get this: During this same time period, with Ricky still missing, DHS actually went ahead and finalized the adoption of Ricky's youngest sibling, who was living in the Holland home as a foster child.

    It's amazing what the combination of everyday class bias, plus the prospect of bounty money for the agency and lots and lots of good press will do. And just think: Had Ricky disappeared in November instead of July, the adoption of his brother by the Hollands might even have been finalized on Michigan Adoption Day.

    In any event, I've reread almost all the clips. Now I'm going through the many previous reports issued about child welfare in Michigan, and finding a fair amount that apparently was overlooked when those reports were issued. I'm reminded of things I first learned when I was a reporter: Just how much people will admit to when, apparently, they think it's for a document no one will read. Or what happens when a stray fact in an old report is linked to a news story. For instance: Is it possible that some of Michigan's child welfare agencies actually urged the State Legislature to adopt policies that break federal law? More on that in future posts.