Thursday, April 28, 2011

Foster care in California: Confessions of an “adultist”

           A couple of weeks ago, the “patient of the week” on the medical drama House was a 16-year-old girl who wanted to set a record for being the youngest to sail solo around the world.  But her mystery disease turned out to be cancer in one arm.  It could be cured only by amputating the arm.

            The girl wanted to wait until after she sailed around the world.  The doctors said waiting that long stood an excellent chance of killing her.  The girl said she didn’t care.  But it wasn’t her decision.  She was not an adult.  Her parents decided her life was worth more than a sailing record.

            I thought about that drama when I read what the California Youth Connection, a group made up of current and former foster children, was proposing to trade in exchange for supporting a bill to open some of what California calls “dependency courts” in child welfare cases.
            Under current state law these courts are presumed closed, but judges can open them.  Legislation proposed by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) would have created a pilot project reversing that presumption in three counties.  These courts would be open unless a party could give a judge a good reason to close all or part of a hearing.

            I discussed the merits of opening these hearings on this blog yesterday, noting that, in what amounts to a triumph of the tyranny of personal experience over sound judgment, CYC opposed the bill.  But they did offer an alternative: Take the decision away from the judges entirely and give it to the children.  Under CYC’s proposed amendment, the child whose case was at issue would decide if the court hearing would be open or closed.

            I have not read any news account explaining how this would work.  Would there be a hearing in every case?  At what age would a child be granted this power?  16?  Eight?  Four?  What if siblings are involved in the same case and they disagree?  

            But the problems with this go way beyond the purely practical.  For starters, it would make California dependency courts even more secret than they are now, since under current law a judge can override the presumption that hearings are closed.  As Assemblyman Feuer pointed out, under this proposal, a party to the proceeding would have more power than the judge.

            What’s really alarming is how many adults rushed to embrace this abdication of adult responsibility.  Posting on the website of the San Jose Mercury News  Connie Robbins writes: “I can't understand why the amendment to include the child in the decision to make it public or not is going too far? Why should an outsider have a more ‘legitimate’ interest?” Writes Matt Anderson: “Interesting how someone can say that the opinion that mattes the most, that of foster youth, goes too far.”


Well, for starters, the whole point of the court process is to determine facts, get at truth and obtain a decision from someone who is neutral and therefore less likely to be biased – in other words, an “outsider.”  The entire process becomes a sham, and becomes dangerous, when the power to make vital decisions is ceded to one of the parties. 

            In criminal trials, even when the victim has been raped, and, for that matter, even when that rape victim is a child, the victim does not decide if the public will be barred; and neither does anyone else with a vested interest.  All such trials are presumed open, with far less leeway to close them than the California bill would have allowed in dependency court.

That’s because any potential harm from openness is vastly outweighed by the potential sloppiness and, sometimes, corruption likely to invade the criminal justice process when trials are secret.  So prosecutors can’t close the courtroom and neither can defense attorneys or the accused, or even victims.  Only a neutral arbiter, - an “outsider” known as a judge - can do that.

It makes no more sense to cede the decision on opening or closing a hearing to a child than it does to simply dispense with the whole trial and have the child decide the outcome of the case.


But the most revealing comment supporting CYC’s proposed amendment is from a clinical psychologist, Dr. Greg Manning, who condemned Assemblyman Feuer’s opposition to it, declaring that  “The Senator’s [sic] position wrecks [sic] of Adultism.”

            I confess I’d never heard that term before (and now that I have, I can safely say it’s not going to do anything to disabuse the rest of the nation concerning certain stereotypes about California.)

I’m hoping Dr. Manning and those who share his views will be able to get in touch with their “inner adult.”  Because a little good old fashioned “adultism” is exactly what is needed here.  That’s because you don’t need a clinical psychology degree to notice that  children are not adults.  There is a reason that 12-year-olds can’t get married, 14-year-olds can’t drive, 15-year-olds can’t vote and 16-year-olds can’t drink alcohol legally.  It involves hopelessly adultist concepts like maturity and judgment.

That doesn’t mean young people shouldn’t play a strong role in advocating for what they want and trying to persuade a judge that they’re right.  Indeed, that role should be much stronger than it is now in most courtrooms.

            For example, typically children are assigned “law guardians” to represent them.  But they don’t really. The law guardian argues for what the guardian thinks is best for the child, even if the child disagrees.  That’s wrong.  I believe strongly that, starting at the age at which they can make a rational decision, a child’s lawyer should act like a lawyer and argue vigorously for whatever the child wants – even if the lawyer does not personally think that’s in the child’s best interests.

But that’s not because I think the child necessarily should get what he wants.  Rather, it’s because a just outcome is most likely when all sides have someone making a vigorous case for what they want – with a neutral arbiter, an outsider, actually making the decision.

I can think of few adult acts more irresponsible than leaving what might be literally a life or death decision to a child – whether that decision involves sailing around the world even if you’re likely to die or whether the court hearings where your fate is to be decided should be open or closed.  Children should make clear what they want, and they should have an advocate arguing vigorously for that position.  But deciding if a hearing will be open to the accountability that comes with scrutiny or closed because of the hypothetical embarrassment to the child is a decision best made by someone who is neutral and someone who is an adult.

Adultist? You bet.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Foster care in California: the tyranny of personal experience takes a heavy toll

           About a year ago on this Blog, I wrote about the tyranny of personal experience.  By that I mean people who have had such searing, profound, often traumatic personal experiences that they can’t see beyond them.  They view everything through the lens of what happened to them, unable to recognize that their experience may not have been the norm, or even that someone else might have had a personal experience that was equally profound and equally traumatic, but precisely the opposite.  That’s the problem with personal experience: it’s personal.

            The failure to recognize that good decision making can’t be based solely on “what happened to me” leads to a lot of faulty conclusions and faulty decisions, something aptly illustrated in this segment of The Daily Show – which, starting about 4:50 in, turns out to be the best analysis of the tyranny of personal experience I've seen anywhere.

When anecdotes collide, I argued, it’s time to look at the data, and base decisions on what those data reveal about what happens to most people in most places most of the time.

            The tyranny of personal experience has just taken a particularly sad toll in California.  It killed for this year a bill that could have begun the process of opening juvenile court hearings in that state to press and public.  The legislation would have created a pilot project in three counties, with the final decision in each case still up to the judge.  The sponsor, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, (D-Los Angeles) promises to bring it back in 2012. "This is not a bill to me,” Feuer said, “this is a cause."

            At least 17 states have opened their juvenile courts to the press and the public since 1980.  Not one has closed them again.  That’s because the Chicken Littles were wrong – all the hypothetical scare scenarios proved groundless.  And in real life, there were improvements in some child welfare systems, and dramatic benefits in some individual cases.  Details are in our  Due Process Agenda, in  the excellent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series “Open Justice” and in this recent law review article, available by clicking here and then clicking on the download link at the top of the page.

            Despite the success elsewhere open courts bills had died before in California, with opposition led by groups like the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the union representing caseworkers, and the trade association for county child welfare agencies (individual counties run child welfare in California).  Obviously, they didn’t want the public to see what passes for casework in child welfare.  But this year it looked like the bill had a real shot.

            Until the California Youth Connection announced it was opposed.  CYC is the largest best organized group of its kind; a lobbying and advocacy organization made up of and run by current and former foster youth.

            As the San Jose Mercury News reports today, some observers noted that CYC’opposition “provided cover for other bill opponents.”


            The way adults usually deal with groups like CYC is to figuratively pat the members on the head, tell them how wonderful they are, gush over how much they supposedly admire what the young people have done, patronize them at best or, as in the case of the notorious Pew Commission on Foster Care, manipulate them at worst.  Then they support what the young people want as long as the child welfare establishment wants it too and, especially, if it doesn’t cost money.  Were I a young person who’d endured foster care I’d have had it up to here with that by now.  So I intend to treat CYC with more respect.  I take them, their views and, yes, their personal experiences seriously enough to argue with them when I think they’re wrong.  And I think they are seriously wrong about open courts.

            There is nothing in news accounts to indicate that CYC researched the experiences of young people in states with open courts.  Rather, they polled their members who appear to have made their decisions based on their personal experiences.  A minority had personal experiences that led them to wish the courts had been open in their particular cases.  A majority had personal experiences that led them to be glad the courts were closed.

            Either way, that’s a poor way to decide how to influence public policy that affects not just you but thousands of young people, many of whom you will never know.

            Another group of California foster youth disagrees.  Amanda Riddle, Foster Youth editor of the newspaper L.A. Youth posted this comment on the Blog WitnessLA:

We at L.A. Youth newspaper support opening up dependency court hearings. For the past seven years, we've been publishing stories written by foster youth about their experiences in the system. We've seen how the decisions made in court have a huge impact on their lives, and they often feel they have little control over what happens to them. The more sunshine on the process, the better.

Another former foster child, not connected to CYC, took pains to distance herself from the group's position in this post on the website of the Contra Costa Times:

I suffered through the court systems as a child and I WISH there was more accountability and that people really KNEW what was going on in that court room.  The foster youth organization does NOT speak for me. [Emphasis in original].

            On the other hand, a former CYC member explained why she supported CYC’s decision in a post on the Mercury News website.  Her comment is a perfect example of the tyranny of personal experience.

She suggested open courts are not needed because “each case is overseen by an attorney, a social worker, foster parents, and in some cases biological parents, therapists, and other experts.”

Presumably, that’s how it worked in her personal case.  But much of the time those protections exist in name only.  As the Mercury News noted, the newspaper’s 2008 investigation, made possible in part by judges who opened their own courts to scrutiny “revealed deluged judges and court-appointed lawyers failing to meet even basic standards of adequate representation for children and parents, despite the high stakes.” 

The former foster youth continues: “Children are not taken from their homes for no good reason at all.”

If that is the case, what explains what happened in a small town in Tennessee a few years ago? A judge took away the children of several immigrant mothers and told them if they did not learn English they’d never get those children back.

But the only reason we know this is that, unlike California, in Tennessee these hearings are at least nominally open. A reporter in the courtroom wrote what he saw.  Then the alternative weekly in Nashville picked up the story and contacted NCCPR.  Then we put out a press release which caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times.  That story caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center.  They came in and represented the parents.  The children were returned to their families and the judge was censured.

But we never would have known, and those children never would have gotten their families back, had the courts been closed.

            Those very young children had a very different personal experience from the former CYC member.

            In California, we are likely to find out about such cases only in the rare instances in which child protective services reaches into families affluent enough to fight back by filing a civil lawsuit. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Orange County which was ordered to pay $4.9 million to a mother whose children were, indeed, taken for “no good reason at all.”  And what’s more, the jury found, two caseworkers lied to a juvenile court commissioner in order to get him to approve removing the children. (One of those caseworkers has been promoted and now trains other caseworkers.)

            One of those children, now a young adult, is bringing her own lawsuit over what she had to endure.  I wonder if this former foster child feels well represented by CYC’s position?

            CYC did propose an alternative in exchange for its support.  Assemblyman Feuer wisely rejected it.  I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

TOMORROW: Confessions of an “adultist.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On our Blog at Youth Today: CWLA’s Annual Conference: Where the Gordon Gekkos of child welfare compare notes

            One of the great things about the annual conference of the Child Welfare League of America – o.k., the only great thing about this gathering of the foster care-industrial complex – is that every year there is at least one panel where the mask slips.  Talking among themselves, participants shed some of the pieties about how every word they speak, every action they take, indeed every breath they inhale is only “for the children.”  Some of the agencies show their true colors.   

            In this month’s installment of our Blog at the trade journal Youth Today, I talk about what they revealed about themselves this year: You can read it here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Well what do you know? Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter doesn’t need drugs after all

But Michigan still is 
institutionalizing her anyway

Remember how workers for the Michigan Department of Human Services were so sure that Marianne Godboldo’s daughter absolutely, positively had to be on powerful psychiatric medications that they rushed into court to get an order to tear the child from her mother, by force, if necessary?

Remember how they did that without giving Godboldo a chance to respond?   (It must have been do urgent to get the child on those drugs that there just not enough time.)

Remember how they went to Godboldo’s home and, when she would not surrender her child, called in the police, complete with SWAT team and a tank to force her to give up her child?  Remember how, faced with that armed force outside, Godboldo allegedly fired one shot?

Remember all that?

It must have been really, really urgent that the child get those drugs right away.

Apparently not.

Because now, 25 days after Godboldo’s daughter was institutionalized, she is, not, in fact, back on the meds.  DHS told the court that there is no immediate need for it at this time.

So of course, having realized their mistake, the DHS workers asked the court immediately to return the child to her mother – right?

Yeah, right.

It only works that way for affluent white children like Leo Ratte, the child who was returned home after 48 hours in the Mike’s Hard Lemonade case.  It only works that way for families who can bring top legal talent to bear immediately and win instant sympathy from media – because they are the kind of people lawyers and reporters identify with immediately.  I don’t see any high-powered lawyers volunteering to help Godboldo’s legal team.  And I don’t see the Michigan ACLU rushing to help Godboldo, they way they’re helping the Rattes, by filing a civil suit which that family, to its credit, is using to try to help all Michigan families.

It doesn’t work that way for low income Black children.  Maryanne Godboldo remains institutionalized.  There won’t even be another hearing in the case until April 22.  By then Godboldo’s daughter will have been taken from her mother for 29 days, 14.5 times longer than Leo Ratte.

And even then, the judge isn’t even talking about letting Godboldo’s child go home.  Rather, she says “I’d love to get this child into a family member’s home [but the court] has to follow the law.”

And what law is that?  There is no law barring the placement of a child with a relative, not even in Michigan.  Apparently it has to do with getting background checks done.

But a background check should take a day or two at most; with the right technology it can be done in minutes.

Unless, of course, this case now has run headlong into the odious consent decree between DHS and the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights.”

As has been discussed often on this blog, those consummate bureaucrats at CR imposed a requirement that relatives meet all of the same hypertechnical licensing requirements imposed on middle-class strangers before being allowed to take in members of their own families.  This has led to the expulsion of an estimated 1,800 children from the homes of relatives across Michigan.  It also has added a lot of time to the approval process for a grandparent, aunt to other relative to take in a family member as a foster child.

There are exceptions to these rules, but they are few and far between.  It’s also true that technically, the decree itself allows a child to be placed with a relative even before a formal “home study” of that relative is completed – a process that can take 30 days.

But DHS has proven to be scared of doing anything to upset the bureaucrats at CR – they may well be waiting until every i is dotted and t is crossed before placing children with relatives in some cases, especially a high-profile case like this one.  And it’s irrelevant both to CR and DHS how much the child suffers in the process.

So the question remains: Is the CR consent decree part of the reason Marianne Godboldo’s daughter remains trapped in an institution?  And this much is beyond question: CR hasn’t lifted a finger to help get Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter out.

 Supporters of Maryanne Godboldo and her daughter have their own website, and a   Twitter feed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pregnant women and drugs: Another relapse at The New York Times

            First came the hype and hysteria over pregnant women using crack cocaine.  It led to dire predictions about a doomed generation.  And some were, in fact, doomed – not by the drugs used by their mothers, but by their mass confiscation and consignment to the chaos of foster care.
            Indeed, while study after study found no or minimal effects on infants from their mothers’ prenatal cocaine use, another study found that when children born with cocaine in their systems were taken from their mothers, they fared far worse than children left with mothers able to care for them.  It turns out that, when it comes to what harms a newborn, cocaine isn’t nearly as toxic as foster care.

            The myths about so-called “crack babies” have been so thoroughly debunked that it is among “the greatest misreported stories in American journalism,” according to scholar W. Joseph Campbell, whose excellent book, Getting it Wrong, (University of California Press: 2010) dissects ten such myths. (For example, it turns out William Randolph Hearst didn’t start the Spanish-American War after all.)

            But  exposure of the myths about crack didn’t stop newspapers like The New York Times from making exactly the same mistakes concerning methamphetamine.

            And now – oops, they’ve done it again. This time the hype and hysteria infuse a story that ran on Sunday about abuse of prescription painkillers by pregnant women.  While not as bad as the meth and crack coverage, it was bad enough.  The failings in the Times story are superbly dissected by Lynn Paltrow, executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women on her Blog at RH Reality Check so I won’t repeat the analysis here.

            Perhaps one should be forgiving.  After all, American media seem addicted to blaming pregnant women, and rushing to embrace proposals to confiscate their children, whenever a new alleged “drug plague” catches their eye; and we all know that relapse is a part of recovery.

            Om the other hand, I haven’t seen any indication that many reporters are seeking treatment for their addiction.  Perhaps Arthur S. Brisbane, the current “Public Editor” at the Times, could do an intervention.

Monday, April 11, 2011

They can’t fix foster care – but they sure have mastered doublethink

           One of the most, uh, remarkable things about Marcia Lowry and her colleagues at the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) is their mastery of doublethink – the term George Orwell invented to describe “the power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them.”

            CR’s skill at doublethink is now on display in a series of reports and press releases about Oklahoma, where they’ve brought one of their class-action McLawsuits.

            In a previous post to this Blog, I noted that CR had issued a scathing report on the widespread abuse of children in Oklahoma foster care.  The problem, I said, was that CR isn’t lifting a finger to actually keep Oklahoma children out of foster care.

            Turns out I underestimated CR’s capacity for doublethink.  Now they’ve put out another press release about still another report.  Among the complaints this time: Oklahoma supposedly has gone too much to reduce the number of children in the very system CR itself says is a grave danger to those children.

            The report is written by Viola Miller, an odd choice given her mediocre record running child welfare systems in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Her report appears to be based in no small measure on reading other reports commissioned by CR.

            Miller agrees with what those other experts said about Oklahoma foster care.  She concludes that children are being harmed at an “alarmingly high rate” and until DHS cleans up its act, “the children in its care will continue to live in danger.”

            Then, in the very next paragraph, Miller launches into an attack on DHS for its success in getting more children out of this abysmal system.  Miller condemns DHS for using “differential response” an approach that now is used in many other states.  Every independent evaluation done of differential response shows it does not compromise safety; some have shown that child safety improves.

            And what evidence does Miller have that differential response is unsafe in Oklahoma?  The fact that it’s working.  Miller complains that the number of children in Oklahoma foster care is dropping too quickly.

            But that ignores one key fact: Oklahoma started out with, proportionately, vastly more children in foster care on any given day than the national average, and a vastly higher number of children taken away over the course of a year.  Even with the reductions in recent years – the very reductions Miller says have come too quickly – Oklahoma still tears apart families at a rate 40 percent above the national average and the number of children in foster care on any given day remains 50 percent above the national average.

            That means Oklahoma simply had vastly more cases that could suitably be diverted to differential response, and a sharp decline in the foster care population makes sense.
            Miller’s other “evidence” of a problem is that DHS offers voluntary safety plans to families who are assessed using differential response.  But that’s exactly what DHS is supposed to do.  That’s the whole point of differential response – in cases where the risk is believed to be low, you go out and offer voluntary help, not a coercive investigation.  What Miller appears to be arguing for is perverting differential response into child abuse investigations by another name.


            There is, in fact, a case to be made for the possibility that DHS is not doing differential response as well as it should – but not based on the reasons Miller suggests.

People often point to horror stories about children dying in their own homes when they are “known to the system” as supposedly proving that the only error made by child welfare agencies is to leave the children in dangerous homes.  I usually reply by saying, among other things, that child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel; they err in all directions.  Indeed, it makes no sense to think the errors go only way.

            But that also means a system that has screwed up foster care as royally as Oklahoma DHS has done is bound to be having problems getting alternatives right as well.  And, in fact, Miller found contradictions in various manuals for implementing differential response and responding to hotline calls.  That raises legitimate cause for concern.

            But nothing in Miller’s report suggests that the problems with differential response come anywhere near the scope and severity of the problems with foster care; nothing justifies any notion that there is equal danger.

            The credibility of Miller’s claims about differential response are further undermined because they are part of a pattern of CR seeking to undermine almost anything in almost any state that doesn’t involve subjecting every family to a full-scale child abuse investigation and traumatizing children with needless foster care.  CR also is going after differential response in Georgia, despite significant evidence that the Georgia program does not compromise safety.

            And back when Miller herself still was running the system in Tennessee, CR successfully bullied the Tennessee legislature into repealing a law that would have brought just a little bit of balance to the incentives judges face when making decisions about whether to remove children from their homes.

            A lot of this boils down to the whole bureaucratic mindset at CR.  Sure, foster care in Oklahoma is horrible for kids’ psyches and puts them in grave physical danger, but, they seem to believe, we’ll fix it – we’ll hire lots more workers and give them lots more bureaucratic forms and checklists and “training” and then everything will be fine.  And while we’re fixing foster care, we’ll just keep shoveling more kids into it and opposing efforts to divert kids to better options.

            Lowry likes to say that she doesn't know how to fix poverty, but she knows how to fix foster care. In fact, the results of her lawsuits suggest she doesn't know how to fix either one – and her efforts sometimes make the poverty worse.

            But even were it true, as Miller suggests, that the problems in Oklahoma foster care and Oklahoma’s efforts to avoid foster care are equivalent, that still raises a fundamental question: 

Miller writes that “children in Oklahoma are facing serious risk of harm both before and after they enter state custody.”

In that case, by tearing these children away from their families at a rate 40 percent above the national average, you accomplish exactly what?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

UPDATED, APRIL 7: Foster care in Michigan: CPS plays “the muscle game”

To the surprise of absolutely no one familiar with how courts operate in these cases, in the case discussed in the previous post to this Blog, a judge in Detroit has rubber-stamped the institutionalization of Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter and her continued separation from her mother.

Lawyers for Godboldo are appealing. But for now, this means this 13-year-old girl, already in foster care five times longer than Leo Ratte, the upper-middle-class white child in the Mike’s Hard Lemonade case, will remain institutionalized indefinitely.

And what of the Detroit Free Press, which has lagged behind on the story? They finally produced something more than a news brief.  The Free Press, which rightly rushed to the defense of Leo Ratte and his college professor parents, showed no such sympathy for the child of a Black single mother.  On the contrary, not one person quoted in the story supported Ms. Godboldo’s position.

Instead, a CPS spokesman got four paragraphs to offer up the Disney version: We only take children when absolutely necessary, it’s a last resort, etc. etc.

The Free Press also quoted from the court order authorizing CPS to take away the children.  Among other things, the order says that “mother is in denial about her daughter’s mental health issue.”  (Yes, they still talk that way at CPS!)

As usual, The Detroit News had a more thorough story, including both sides.  Their story quotes a CPS supervisor as saying a total of four “referrals” had been made about the child.  It is quite possible, however, that three of them came from the same place – an institution where, Godboldo told WXYZ-TV, three separate employees had threatened to call CPS if she didn’t voluntarily admit her daughter.

But once again, it was Darrell Dawsey who first added real context to the story in his Blog for MLive Detroit, who advanced it once again today, with an interview with a doctor Godboldo turned to when psychiatric medication was making her child worse.  Here’s some of Dawsey’s column:

"She did what she was supposed to do," says Dr. Margaret Betts, a veteran Detroit MD who specializes in holistic treatments and who consulted with … Godboldo on alternative treatments for her child. "The treatment they recommended wasn't helping. Maryanne sought further medical attention. She acted like a good parent. It's a parent's right to choose." …

"The treatment she was using was helping her daughter much better than the treatment (Child Protective Services) had recommended," explains Dr. Betts, who's practiced medicine for 25 years, in an exclusive interview with MLive Detroit. .. 

“When the parent chose a different treatment,” says Dr. Betts, “CPS played a muscle game.”

So, just to review what either MLive Detroit, The Detroit News or WXYZ-TV have reported but which the Free Press omitted from today’s story:

● Maryanne Godboldo sought out medical treatment for her daughter in the first place.

●She agreed to give the child psychiatric medication.

●It was only after the medication worsened her daughter’s condition that she sought a second medical opinion from Dr. Betts.

●It was only after Dr. Betts said to do so that Ms. Godboldo started weaning her daughter off the psychiatric medication.

●Ms. Godboldo says the people who turned her in to CPS all work for an institution that demanded she admit her daughter.  It was when she refused that they called CPS.  Can you say “conflict of interest”?

And even if a case could be made to deny custody to the mother, what about the father?  According to the Detroit News story:

A lawyer for the girl's father, Mubuarak Hakim, also accused protective services of failing one of its mandates to keep families together by not trying to find the father or another relative with whom to place the girl. ...

The father's lawyer, Roger Farinha, said during the hearing that throughout her 13 days in state custody, the girl has still not been given the prescribed drug in question, and yet the authorities have said she has been stable in their care. "So maybe the mother was right," Farinha said.

In a classic example of the kind of hearsay that is standard operating procedure in these cases, the CPS supervisor claimed, however, that a counselor claimed the girl has become "agitated and aggressive" without her medications.  But apparently she wasnt on the medications before she was taken away, since thats why she was taken away in the first place.  And either way, if, in fact, the claim is true, it apparently occurred to neither the counselor nor the CPS supervisor that the girl may be "agitated and aggressive" because she is without her mother.

The choice here is between returning this child to the mother who loves her (or placing her with her father or another relative), vs. leaving her institutionalized and at the tender mercies of the Michigan child welfare system. The more you know about Michigan foster care, the easier it is to see why the best option is for Ms. Godboldo’s daughter to be freed from the institution immediately. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Now everybody’s double standards are showing


Two child welfare cases from Detroit are back in the news this week.  The one that dates back nearly three years got more attention from the daily newspapers in Detroit than the one going on right now.  The children in the two cases also have been treated very differently.  In each case, it’s not hard to see why.

The case from 2008 now is widely known as the “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case.  It involves a man named Christopher Ratte who tried to buy lemonade for his seven-year-old son, Leo, at a baseball game.  By mistake, he gave the boy an alcoholic beverage, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, instead.

The boy was thrown into foster care for two days – plenty long enough to do serious emotional harm – then released.  The suffering of thousands of other children is vastly worse.  Yet this is the case that made the front page of the Detroit Free Press it made CNN, it even was the subject of a Scott Simon commentary on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday.

It’s easy to explain the response of both the system and the media.  The child is white and the parents are upper-middle-class.  They’re college professors.

 [This case is an] extremely rare example of the long arm of child protective services extending into the upper middle class. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the story made it onto NPR. In fact, part of the reason this story got so much attention, starting with this excellent column in the Detroit Free Press, is that the family's lawyer asked NCCPR for advice on calling attention to it. But the other part is simply because this was one of those very rare times when the system harmed somebody journalists at NPR, and elsewhere, can identify with. Read about this case and it's going to send a chill up the spine of middle class professionals as they think: "This could happen to my child."

The case is back in the news now because the parents have filed a civil lawsuit. The Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is representing them.  That, in itself is remarkable, since often the ACLU is the perfect exemplar of  how so many of my fellow liberals abandon everything they purport to believe in about civil liberties when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.

And to the great credit of the Ratte family, they’re not just suing for damages – they’re seeking a change in Michigan law to make it less likely that any child of any race or class will have to endure this kind of ordeal in the future.


In contrast, not many middle class professionals in child welfare or media are likely to identify with Marianne Godboldo.

She had been homeschooling her child and exercising her right not to vaccinate her.
But this is not one of those cases about a parent getting into trouble with CPS for not vaccinating her child.  On the contrary, when her daughter, at age 13, said she wanted to enroll in public school, Ms. Godboldo got her all the required vaccinations, in an accelerated sequence.

But the child suffered serious side effects. 

Here’s what happened next, according to Darrell Dawsey, a columnist for MLive Detroit, a website run by the Newhouse Michigan Newspapers – and, for awhile, the only mainstream journalist in Detroit to take the story seriously:

the Detroit mother went to the Children's Center, a group that works with troubled children, to seek advice and a treatment plan for her 13-year-old daughter. The girl, who'd never had behavioral problems before, was suddenly irritable and not her usual self following a series of immunization shots.

As part of the center's treatment plan, a doctor prescribed the child an anti-psychotic medication. But the child's symptoms only worsened. As a result, Godboldo sought another physician, who quickly recommended taking the child off the psychotropic drug.
The mother agreed and, according to her attorney, who spoke exclusively with MLive Detroit earlier today, Godboldo began following that doctor's orders.

Unfortunately for Godboldo, the state didn't agree. Child Protective Services wanted Godboldo's child medicated according the center's plan, and CPS workers essentially told the 56-year-old mother - who was never under any court order to follow the plan - to agree to their program or surrender her child.

She refused both. And so, on Thursday, CPS workers showed up at Godboldo's house with the police, who said they had a warrant to take the child. But according to Godboldo's lawyer, Wanda A. Evans, officers never produced a warrant even after Godboldo repeatedly asked to see one.

Had the story ended there, with Ms. Godboldo reluctantly surrendering the child, no one would know about it.  After all, news is the unusual.  Wrongfully taking a child from white upper-middle-class college professors is unusual; taking a child unjustly from her low income Black single mother is a grand case of “So what else is new?”

But it didn’t end there.  According to Dawsey:

A standoff ensued. A gunshot was fired from inside the house - though, according to Evans, not at officers. Finally, after long hours of tense negotiations, Godboldo - a mother, a teacher, a dancer and a respected figure in the city's arts circles - surrendered, was jailed and, on Sunday, was arraigned on multiple felony charges.

Now that’s news.


Ms. Godboldo’s daughter was placed in foster care with strangers – even though many relatives had come forward offering to take her in.

Bail was set at $500,000.  Only when the story started to get news coverage and friends in the community started to rally around, was it lowered to the point where she could get out of jail and try to see her daughter, though according to one news account, CPS wouldn’t allow the visit.

The ordeal endured by Leo Ratte in the Mike’s Hard Lemonade case was terrible, and the story deserved all the attention it got.  But there was, if anything, even less reason to take away Marianne Godboldo’s daughter.  Yet so far the Free Press, which put the Lemonade case on the front page, has devoted only a couple of news briefs to the Godboldo case.  The Detroit News wrote a story, but one that mostly parroted the police line.  They did a much better follow up story, after Dawsey’s column appeared.

And national media?  It’s early yet, but so far, nothing.  Perhaps that will change Saturday when a rally is scheduled on behalf of the family.  But somehow, I doubt I’ll be hearing anything about it from Scott Simon on NPR Weekend Edition.

Because Godboldo case didn’t happen to people like us, it happened to people like them.  They are people most of us know as story subjects only, (and often the stories are not flattering) not as friends, relatives or colleagues. 

Of course one could argue there’s another difference.  The Rattes never fired a gun, not even a warning shot to keep from having their door broken down, and they didn’t barricade themselves in their home.  And, in fact, there is no excuse for Ms. Godboldo doing that, if she did.  There needs to be some kind of penalty - but the price should be paid by her - not her daughter, who is being punished by being separated from her mother.

It’s also the case that the Rattes didn’t have to fire a gun.  They could get great lawyers to help them.  That and their upper-middle-class status got Leo out of foster care in days. That still was plenty of time to do real emotional damage.  But odds are the ordeal for Ms. Godboldo’s daughter is going to last a lot longer – and it would have lasted a lot longer even had there been no confrontation.

As for the high-handed behavior of Michigan child protective services in both cases, there's nothing unusual about that at all, as is documented in NCCPR's reports on Michigan child welfare.

If they win, the Rattes lawsuit will help change the system.  Paying as much attention to all the Maryanne Godboldos would help a lot more.


Some of Ms. Godboldo’s supporters have set up a website in support of her and her daughter, but the individuals and organizations involves are not identified.

● And this one almost goes without saying: There is one group that has been entirely consistent in its treatment of the two cases: The group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights.”  Their name, and the fact that they have a consent decree in Michigan notwithstanding, they have shown absolutely no interest in the rights of either Leo Ratte or Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter.

UPDATE, APRIL 2: Guess who turned in Marianne Godboldo

            In an extended interview with WXYZ-TV, Marianne Godboldo added some details to the story of what happened to her daughter – including exactly  who it was who turned them in to CPS.

            According to the story:

            ● The child is not even in a foster home, she’s been institutionalized.

            ● The child has not even been allowed a visit with Ms. Godboldo or her father since her ordeal began.  Visits, but only under state supervision, are expected to start sometime next week.

           ● The problems actually began when her daughter was 11.  That’s when she received the accelerated series of immunizations.  Ms. Godboldo says shortly afterwards the child was diagnosed with encephalitis.  But Children’s Hospital in Detroit recommended the girl be tested at another institution.

            ● After ten days of tests, that institution claimed the child was psychotic, and urged Ms. Godboldo to put her daughter on psychiatric medication.  She reluctantly agreed.

            ● When the child’s symptoms worsened – including hallucinations – she returned to the institution and said she wanted to take her child off the meds.

            ● The institution then demanded that the child be admitted to that very institution – or they would call CPS.  Ms. Godboldo says the threats came from a nurse, a psychiatrist and the director of the institution.

            ● Ms. Godboldo refused, and said she wanted a second opinion.

            ● That’s when the institution allegedly carried out its threat. 

It’s not absolutely clear if the place where the child is institutionalized is the same one that allegedly threatened to call CPS if Ms. Godboldo did not admit her child there.  But this much we know: While the child suffers the loss of her parents, the institution that allegedly turned the mother, or some other institution, gets at least a couple of hundred dollars a day for the “care” of the child.

Meanwhile, the Detroit News has a good story on its website about today’s rally.  There is still nothing from the Free Press. [UPDATE: The Free Press posted a story late Saturday afternoon.]  Scott Simon's commentary on NPR Weekend Edition today was about the Bronx Zoo cobra.

And Marianne Godboldo’s daughter already spent more than twice as much time in foster care as Leo Ratte.