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.