Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: Rubber-stamp removals – literally

For years I and other critics of child protective services agencies have complained that there is no real review of CPS actions.  Everything these agencies want is simply rubber-stamped.

What I didn't know is that in Michigan they take that literally.

In a stunning story last week, Detroit television station WXYZ, which has led the state’s news media in covering child welfare, revealed that in two high-profile cases of wrongful removal the so-called “court orders” authorizing the Michigan Department of Human Services and law enforcement to remove the children were not signed by a real live judge.  They were, literally, rubber-stamped.

One of the cases is the case of Maryanne Godboldo, whose child was torn from her when she exercised her legal right, in consultation with the child’s doctor, and took the child of psychiatric medication after it was clear the child was being harmed by the side effects. (Details are in these previous posts.)

The other case is the so-called “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case, in which a child was thrown into foster care because his father accidentally bought him the aforementioned lemonade at a baseball game.
Here’s what ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael Steinberg, who is suing the state on behalf of the family, told WXYZ:
The practice as we understand it, and as we understand happened in this case, is a caseworker rubber stamps a judge’s signature on these orders, and that to us is another indication that it’s a system gone awry, and there’s not enough checks and balances.
It also calls further into question the claims of DHS Director Maura Corrigan in a May op ed in the Detroit Free Press – the one where she said that “Contrary to popular belief, our Child Protective Services caseworkers do not decide on their own to remove children from their homes."
WXYZ found other irregularities in the “order” issued in the Godboldo case, all of which are detailed in their excellent story.  According to the story:
[Godboldo’s attorney] points out that the caseworker claims on the order that Godboldo had “numerous” referrals in the last year to CPS for “medical neglect” – Godboldo’s attorneys know of only one.
And then there’s this:
It appears the caseworker checked contradicting boxes on the order – stating both that reasonable efforts to “prevent removal of the child from the home were not made” and that they were made. So which is it?
Here’s why that is so significant: Aside from the fact that making “reasonable efforts” whenever it is safe to do so is far and away the best option for the child, it’s also required under federal law.  A real, live judge has to certify either that reasonable efforts were made or could not be made safely.  If a real live judge doesn’t do that, the case is not eligible for federal aid.
And that raises an intriguing question: How many other cases are there where the reasonable efforts certification was rubber-stamped by someone other than a judge?  And does that constitute defrauding the federal government?
Sadly, even when a judge does sign the order, it may not mean much. As we first noted in our report on Michigan child welfare (See page 33), in an anonymous survey of Michigan judges, conducted by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law and a Maine think tank for this study, 40 percent of the judges admitted that they lied, and checked the box saying reasonable efforts had been made, even when they didn’t believe that themselves.  Half of those judges said they lied because they didn’t want to lose the federal funding.