Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Foster care in Michigan: The Carley Connection

A district attorney who prosecuted an innocent family based on junk science has a new target: Maryanne Godboldo.

UPDATE, 9:10PM: SADLY, THIS TIME THE "OUIJA BOARD CASE" D.A. WON.  WXYZ-TV reports that a jury found for DHS in the neglect case against Maryanne Godboldo.  The television station reports that:

Wednesday's ruling means that Godboldo's daughter will remain in the [legal] custody of the state for the time being. However, the court has not yet decided on whether or not to make the girl a temporary ward of the court.  A final decision is expected September 29. Until then the girl will remain in the [physical] custody of her aunt and uncle. 

While the Detroit News, WXYZ-TV and the Voice of Detroit website all have covered the case of Maryanne Godboldo the old fashioned way – by reporting both sides – the Detroit Free Press has failed to report many of the failures by the Michigan Department of Human Services.  (Details are in this previous post to this Blog). 

Free Press reporter Gina Damron has been almost reverential in her coverage of DHS’ position, and particularly the claims of Deborah Carley, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Children and Youth Services division, who is personally handling DHS’ case against Godboldo.  (Wayne County is the only county where the Attorney General’s office represents DHS in these cases.)

Just two months ago, the Free Press was a lot less reverential toward Carley in an excellent six-part series about a case she handled involving false allegations against a white, middle-class family.

That requires a lot of background:


Child welfare has gone through any number of bizarre fads, and hundreds, perhaps thousands  of children have paid the price.  There was satanic panic, when America’s latter-day “child savers,” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, thought there was a devil-worshipping cult lurking in any number of day care centers.  There was “recovered memory.”  But none has been weirder than “facilitated communication” (FC), which plagued child welfare for a few years in the early 1990s.  As the PBS Series Frontline described it: 

The method uses a helper to control the involuntary movements of an autistic person's hand, allowing that person to type his or her thoughts on a keyboard.

Suddenly, it was believed, people suffering from autism, who had been trapped in silence could “speak” through their facilitators.  Some of them started to “say” some very disturbing things, claiming they had been sexually abused by their parents or others.

But, of course, it was the facilitator doing the “talking.”  Facilitated communication is about as reliable as a Ouija board.  What makes the facilitated communication fad so mind-boggling is that so many people didn’t notice this simple fact, even though it was so easy to prove. 

Frontline described a case in Maine in which a 17-year-old named Betsy accused her entire family of abusing her – at least that’s what the facilitator was typing. 

As Frontline reported, Dr. Howard Shane of Boston Children’s hospital showed Betsy and the facilitator

a series of pictures and asked them to type what they saw. When both Betsy and her facilitator saw a picture of a key, the letters K-E-Y were typed. But Shane wanted to discover what happened if each saw a different picture. When Betsy saw a cup, she didn't type "cup," she typed "hat," what the facilitator saw. …  

[Said Shane]:What I found was that whenever the pictures were different, I always received the typed message that was seen by the facilitator, so that was pretty strong evidence that not only was Betsy not communicating, but the messages were being absolutely, totally directed and authored by the facilitator.”

The only logical conclusion of the test was that the terrible accusations had been authored not by Betsy, but by her facilitator. The [family is] now reunited. The facilitator, devastated by the test results, stopped using facilitated communication and persuaded Betsy's school to stop using it, as well.

What is striking about this case is the apparent intellectual honesty of all parties.  It was the child’s guardian ad litem who asked for the objective test – and notice how the facilitator responded.

It was a very different story in Michigan.

By the mid-1990s, facilitated communication had pretty well died out.  I almost tossed my file of news stories about it to save space.  Certainly no one would be dumb enough, or fanatical enough, to use it in a child abuse prosecution in the 21st Century – would they?

Actually, yes.


Back when David Gorcyca was the district attorney, no place in Michigan was more fanatical about “cracking down on child abuse” than Oakland County – an affluent suburban county near Detroit.  Gorcyca and his chief deputy, Deborah Carley, were constantly grabbing headlines by claiming that the Michigan Department of Human Services (then called the Family Independence Agency) wasn’t aggressive enough about tearing apart families.  Gorcyca even set up his own duplicate child welfare agency within his office to go after families when FIA would not.

Gorcyca and Carley were particularly aggressive about cases involving alleged sexual abuse.  They brought so many bad cases that they were getting convictions in only a little more than 50 percent, compared to the average of more than 80 percent, according to the Free PressExperts questioned by the Free Press said that indicated the office was bringing weak cases that never should have gone to court.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that facilitated communication’s “last stand” would be Oakland County Michigan, thanks to Gorcyca and Carley.  It was the case of the Wendrow family.

The sad irony is that it was the parents, Thal and Julian Wendrow, who actually pressured their school district into trying FC with their autistic 14-year-old daughter.   Like many parents, they were desperate to try anything to try to communicate with their child.  But when the child supposedly accused Julian of abusing her, Gorcyca and Carley apparently never checked out FC.  Indeed, after the case fell apart both said they simply didn’t know if FC is reliable or not.  But that didn’t stop them from charging ahead.

As the Free Press reported:

As public scrutiny grew, Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca assigned seven senior assistant prosecutors to try to find an expert who would support FC. They called nationwide, and Gorcyca even made calls. But they found no such expert.

One can only wonder why they didn’t do that in the first place.  But there’s more:

A judge ordered prosecutors in February 2008 to stop questioning the girl about the allegations using FC. But court records show they visited the girl four more times, trying to see whether she could communicate with FC.

A physical exam found no concrete evidence of sexual assault, but prosecutors said it showed signs of abuse. They then pressured the nurse who performed the exam to say it showed the girl had been abused. She testified that she refused to do so.

And there’s still more.  A police detective badgered and browbeat the child’s 13-year-old brother – exactly the kind of interrogation that was supposed to end after the abuses of the McMartin Preschool and other similar cases were revealed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson wrote two excellent columns about this – taking up the Wendrows’ cause, just as he did for that other white, middle-class family in the “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” case.

Ultimately Carley and Gorcyca had to drop the charges.  But that didn’t happen until months after the court used the same kind of test on the Wendrow child as was used in that case in Maine in the early 1990s – with the same result.  And even then, the Free Press reports:

The prosecutors made one last effort to charge the parents with something.

Carley ordered another assistant prosecutor to begin checking school attendance records for possible truancy action against the parents. That plan was eventually dropped when it was apparent the children were attending school regularly.

Also by then the father had spent nearly three months in jail, the children had been thrown into foster care and the family had been devastated. 


The Free Press interviewed Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney ‘s office who is a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. Gershman called the behavior of the Oakland County District Attorney’s office in the Wendrow case:

just terrible, terrible judgment. A prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in our system, and charging decisions have to be made very carefully," said Gershman, who teaches, writes and speaks nationwide on the role of prosecutors in the legal system.

But the terrible judgment didn’t stop after the charges were dropped.  The Free Press devoted an entire sidebar to contradictions between what Gorcyca, Carley and others claimed just before and after charges were dropped, and the actual court record.  Contradictions such as these:

What the prosecution said: In the motion to dismiss the criminal charges, Gorcyca didn't note the girl couldn't communicate and didn't mention FC. The girl "has consistently disclosed to eight individuals that she has been sexually assaulted," Gorcyca wrote.

What the court files show: When Gorcyca was deposed in 2010, attorneys asked him, "So did you believe" that "FC, to the limited extent that you knew about it, was reliable?" Gorcyca responded, "I have no idea."

What the prosecution said: After the charges were dropped, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Deborah Carley told a newspaper on March 19, 2008, that the girl "spoke for herself" using facilitated communication (FC).  "I don't have any doubt, and I don't think the parents did, either," she said. "We used facilitated communication with her and found it to be a perfectly acceptable way for us to communicate with her, just like her parents did."

What the court files show: When Carley was deposed in 2010, she said she "didn't know enough about" FC to form an opinion on whether it worked. [Emphasis in original.]

The depositions are in connection with a lawsuit the Wendrows filed against Gorcyca, Carley and many others.  In March a judge dismissed the case against Carley and most charges against Gorcyca on grounds that, as prosecutors, they are immune from such suits.  The judge let stand a charge that Gorcyca defamed the family after the charges were dropped.  Both sides are asking the judge to reconsider and have pledged to appeal any adverse ruling.

Gorcyca decided not to seek re-election in 2008 and his successor cleaned house.  But Carley promptly landed another prestigious job, Chief of the Children and Youth Services Division in the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  (On Sept. 20, she’ll be leading a training session for prosecutors on “Handling the Child Welfare Case,” sponsored by the State Courts Administrative Office and the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.)

Now she’s back in court, this time in Wayne County, trying to convict Maryanne Godboldo of neglect.

It was Carley who claimed that the rubber-stamp order to remove Godboldo’s daughter was valid because the probation officer who signed it was a “referee” – even though the Voice of Detroit reports the county’s juvenile intake supervisor said that this officer and the others wielding rubber stamps were not, in fact referees – and state law doesn’t allow referees to issue such orders anyway.


And then there is the larger question: Why is DHS pursuing this case at all?

Remember, Godboldo’s daughter was taken because DHS insisted she absolutely had to be on Risperdal – a potentially dangerous psychiatric drug. After the child was taken, the institution holding her decided she didn’t need Risperdal after all.  DHS still institutionalized the girl for seven weeks, returning her to the custody of an aunt after the institution and the child’s own pediatrician agreed on a treatment plan.

So what can continuing the juvenile court case possibly accomplish except to add still more stress to the life of a child to whom DHS already has done so much harm?

There’s only one reason I can see: To send a message to anyone else who dares to fight DHS.  In which case, DHS certainly has the right lawyer for the job – as can be seen from this account of the juvenile court trial in Voice of Detroit.