Thursday, September 1, 2011

UPDATE: Foster care in Michigan: Wayne County bars rubber-stamp removals

This post was updated at 7:20pm to reflect additional information about the new policy.

The Michigan Department of Human Services no longer will be allowed to simply get a clerk of probation officer to rubber-stamp orders to tear children from their families. WXYZ-TV in Detroit has a story about the decision.

After the practice was exposed by attorneys for Maryanne Godboldo and some excellent reporting by WXYZ, Wayne County officials issued an unsigned memo changing the policy.

Effective immediately, orders must be signed, personally, by either a judge or a “referee,” a lawyer appointed by a judge to hear cases and make recommendations.  At least that appears to be the minimum required according to the somewhat-unclear written policy.  Though it's not in the written memo WXYZ reports that the policy requires that even when a referee "reviews" the order, a judge personally will have to sign it.

The change in policy is an important first step.  It sends a vital message to DHS that tearing a child from everyone she or he knows and loves is not a trivial act to be rubber-stamped.  And it means that, at a minimum, a real live human being with actual training in the law has to review the allegations before allowing such drastic action.

There still is a long way to go.

● First, it would be useful to have a clear, written statement that a judge and only a judge can sign these orders.  Though that's what the policy reportedly means, it can be read as allowing a referee to sign the orders.

A referee is not a judge.  Responsibility for inflicting the trauma of removal on a child should be taken, personally, by a judge.  Indeed, DHS director (and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice) Maura Corrigan herself has claimed that, by law, "only judges" can do this.   She made that claim even when probation officers were, in fact, rubber-stamping the orders in Wayne County.  Presumably, she didn't know.  But even after the rubber-stamping was revealed, Corrigan never spoke out against it.  Nor did she instruct her caseworkers to refuse to accept an order that was rubber-stamped.

● Second, while it is not entirely clear, the new policy still may allow verbal orders over the phone after hours.  In an age of e-mail there is no reason to tolerate a verbal order.  Orders to tear apart a family can and should be in writing at any hour.  There needs to be a complete written record of what was alleged.  The Godboldo case illustrates why - it is the errors throughout the written order and the failure to cite any valid reason to tear apart the family on the spot that document the slovenly nature of DHS practice in that case.  And having the order in writing helped Judge Ronald Giles reach his wise decision to throw out the criminal case against Godboldo.

● More generally, while this should mean the end of the use of a literal rubber-stamp, judges and referees all over the country are far too willing to do whatever child welfare agencies  want them to do.  As is discussed in the previous post to this Blog, juvenile court judges need to bring to bear the same wisdom and same respect for the Constitution shown by Judge Giles, who presides in Wayne County District Court.

● And  Michigan law itself makes it too easy to take away children without a full-scale court hearing first, or even going to a judge or referee at all – the standard is significantly lower than in other states.  That law needs to be changed.

But this change is still an important start. 

Maryanne Godboldo never chose this fight – and her daughter never chose it either.  But having been forced into it, they now have won an important victory for all of the vulnerable children of metropolitan Detroit.