Thursday, September 1, 2011

Foster care in Detroit: What a difference a judge makes

Do Wayne County Juvenile Court judges have a conflict of interest whenever the issue is rubber-stamp removals?

The judge was appalled.

Watch, in this story from WXYZ-TV, as Judge Ronald Giles holds in his hand the “order” used to remove Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, by force, from her home and institutionalize her for seven weeks.  Listen as Judge Giles declares:

It is ridiculous to remove somebody’s child based on this order.  It does not even express any situation where we have contingent circumstances that says the child is at risk.

We’re talking about a person’s constitutional rights here and to have that put up against this order, which is grossly inadequate, incorrect, the mistakes on it are numerous as identified by the protective services worker who typed it up.

Judge Giles is talking about a “court order” that never was issued by an actual court.  It was never so much as seen by a real live judge.  Instead, a probation officer literally rubber-stamped the order.  It’s a routine practice in metropolitan Detroit.  And, as WXYZ explains in this excellent in-depth report, experts on the law say it’s illegal.

Judge Giles went further.

When Detroit police tried, illegally to serve the illegal order, Maryanne Godboldo barricaded herself and her daughter in the house.  Police allege she fired a shot at them, something Godboldo’s lawyers deny.  But it resulted in a slew of criminal charges against Godboldo.

Giles threw all of those charges out, saying there was no evidence for the claims about the shot.  (The prosecution isn’t giving up. With Wayne County and the Michigan Department of Human Services, apparently desperate to retaliate against a mother who stood up to them to protect her child, the county is appealing Judge Giles’ ruling.)

Earlier this month, another judge, Lynne Pierce, upheld the same rubber-stamp court order that Judge Giles essentially said was a piece of crap.  Judge Pierce would not even allow Godboldo’s lawyers to challenge the validity of the order – so the jury in that courtroom never heard about its questionable legality.

In contrast, the jurors heard all about the standoff and the allegation that a shot was fired at police -  the very claim for which Judge Giles found no evidence.

What accounts for the difference?

Quite possibly the type of court.  Judge Pierce presides in Juvenile Court, where the issue was whether Godboldo “neglected” her daughter by exercising her legal right to remove the child from potent psychiatric medication that was causing serious side effects.  In juvenile court, judges are used to the slovenly approach of Wayne County DHS, in which clerks or probation officers routinely rubber-stamp judges’ names onto inaccurate orders to remove children for no good reason.  In fact, the name on the rubber-stamp is that of presiding judge of the juvenile court, Leslie Kim-Smith – in effect, Pierce’s boss.

That, of course, raises a couple of intriguing questions.  Had Judge Pierce ruled that rubber-stamp removals are illegal, would she have been saying in effect: “My boss has been, at the very least, condoning illegal activity over and over again for however long this has been going on”?  If so, is it, in fact, a conflict of interest for any Wayne County Juvenile Court judge to rule in a case where rubber-stamp removals are an issue?

More generally, Judge Pierce’s ruling is in keeping with the ethos of juvenile court since its inception 115 years ago, an ethos that boils down to: “We’re not out to punish anyone, we’re only here to help, so we don’t need all that fuss and bother about due process and protecting people’s rights.” 

In the juvenile justice field, the U.S. Supreme Court saw this for the farce it was nearly half a century ago.  Making clear that it understood that juvenile courts do, indeed, punish, sometimes severely, the high court declared in In re Gault that “Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.

But in child welfare, juvenile courts still tend to operate under what can best be described as a “pre-Gault mentality.” Too many judges behave like frustrated social workers.  (Be especially wary when they start talking about “therapeutic justice.”  You can bet they’ll be heavy on so-called “therapy” and light on justice.) 

In Michigan, this contempt for the law has reached the point where a survey found that 40 percent of juvenile court judges admit that they lie and certify that DHS has met its burden under federal law to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together, even when the judges don’t believe it themselves.

So it’s no wonder Godboldo lost in Pierce’s courtroom.


In contrast, Judge Giles presides in district court, which handles a variety of civil and criminal cases, but not juvenile cases.  So he’s in the kind of court where, in theory at least, everyone is supposed to get a real lawyer, and old-fashioned concepts like evidence, due process and the presumption of innocence prevail.

My guess is that Judge Giles doesn’t see many of those rubber-stamp court orders to take away children.  So he looked at this one with fresh eyes – and was shocked at what he saw.

And speaking of fresh eyes, here’s what the Michigan State Court Administrative Office told WXYZ about the practice of substituting a rubber-stamp for a real, live judge:  “A judge should never delegate the decision to remove a child to a staff member."  The SCAO is an arm of the Michigan Supreme Court.  So the administrator reports to the court and, in particular, the Chief Justice.

For several years the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was Maura Corrigan.  Of course, now Corrigan has a different job – running the Michigan Department of Human Services.  So Corrigan is allowing workers for her new agency, DHS, to do exactly what her old agency, the State Court Administrative Office, says is utterly improper.

And, of course, just weeks before the rubber-stamp removals were revealed, Corrigan herself wrote in the Detroit Free Press that “only judges can issue orders removing children from their homes; such orders are issued only in the most extreme circumstances.”

The most generous interpretation of this is that Justice Corrigan was misinformed on both counts.


Although Judge Giles’ wise decision has been described as a victory for Maryanne Godboldo, it’s really a victory first and foremost for her daughter, who was needlessly torn from everyone she knew and loved and institutionalized for more than a month.  That kind of trauma can scar a child for a lifetime.  It is state-sanctioned child abuse.  Continuing to pursue the case, in either court, can only further harm the child.

Sadly, judge Giles ruling ends only the criminal part of the case.  DHS still has legal custody of Maryanne Godboldo’s daughter, who remains, for now, in the physical custody of an aunt.  Later this month, there will be another hearing in juvenile court.  It’s anybody’s guess what will happen once the case returns to kangaroo country.