STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Changes in the child welfare system not reaching all families

Lynda Giddens

 Last week the ACLU sent out a press release about a case I was at first convinced was an urban legend. 

It gets referred to as the "Mike's Hard Lemonade case." If you haven't heard about it, the bare facts go something like this:

Five years ago, a university professor took his young son to a Detroit Tigers game and bought him an Mike's Hard Lemonade, not understanding it was an alcoholic beverage (according to his lawyer the guy doesn't watch TV). Somebody called the police and the kid was immediately removed from his father and placed into foster care. 
The ACLU sued almost everyone involved, including the judge. The news last week was that a federal court agreed to hear the case against the judge, Judy Hartsfield. She is accused of pre-signing orders to remove kids from their parents without looking at the facts.

Michael Steinberg is a lawyer for the ACLU, and says the practice was common in the Wayne County Family Court. Judges would pre-sign emergency child removal orders to be used when the court wasn't in session. In practice, that meant police officers had the ultimate authority to decide if a child should be removed. "It's not only unconstitutional, it's unfathomable," Steinberg said. 
Unfathomable does seem an appropriate word to describe how many things can go wrong in one interaction with the child welfare system. While last weeks news was about the judge, the case has been credited with changing the law in Michigan around child removal. 
Last year, the state legislature passed "Leo's Law," named after the child removed in this case. The law now requires there to be a risk of substantial or immediate harm before a child is removed. 
But many kids and families who have been involved in the child welfare system will tell you that the standards about child removal are still far from being universally adopted and applied. 
I am following a family right now for a series of stories that has been in and out of the child welfare system for years.  The day before Thanksgiving, the state removed two teenagers, one with substantial disabilities, from their grandmother's care. The harm here? It is still unclear at this point, but likely that it is because the grandmother is living in a hotel with the boys because she was evicted.  Her new place should become available in the next week or so. She does not have any legal representation. 
Other kids who have been in foster care have told me they weren't removed soon enough. Their stories of neglect and abuse show how hard it is for any system to really know what's happening in any family home.
The aftermath of the hard lemonade incident has left several positive developments in it's wake, but it seems the system is still a long way away from working for many vulnerable kids and their families.