STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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When the government steps in to separate parents from children – permanently
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Michelle Gach grabs a couple slices of pizza before we get started. She has a story to tell, and it turns out to be a long one, covering the past 14 years of her life, with more tragic turns than most people see in an entire lifetime.

But that comes later. For now, we’re sitting in a room together: Michelle, two of her daughters, and two friendly pit bulls.

The room is mostly bare, exposed plywood on the floor, blue strips of painter’s tape along the baseboard, new doors still leaning against the wall. A project waiting to be finished.

While Michelle Gach finishes her pizza, her daughter Felicity begins to tell me the story of what happened on a Saturday in August 2014.

"And he wanted to be a big boy one day ... And he wanted to take his puppy to the park. We live across the street from a park."

It’s a story about Felicity’s little brother, who at the time was three years old.

“And he wanted to be a big boy one day,” Felicity says.  “He didn’t wake any of us up. You know, at three years old, he wanted to be a big boy. Goes out the garage door to let his puppy out. And he wanted to take his puppy to the park. We live across the street from a park.”  

Felicity leans forward in her seat. She wears a pink wool cap, black long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and work boots.

On the day she’s telling me about how she was working three jobs. One was at a Speedway gas station. She was working overnight, and a truck came in. She had to do inventory. So she asked her mom to come help.

Her mom, Michelle, says that was at about 4 a.m. Michelle already worked her own job earlier that night. But she left the house to help Felicity anyway. Her other daughter, Michanna, stayed at the house with the three year old.

When Michelle finished up, and got home, it was still dark out. Everyone was asleep. So Michelle went to bed, too.

Felicity says usually when her little brother got up, he would go in his mom’s room first. But not that day. He slipped out, and decided to take his dog for a walk. His dog he knew, a dog he cuddled with at home. A dog that happens to be a muscular black pit bull named Pretty.

“So then, he’s out there running around with his puppy,” Felicity says. “Neighbors call, say there’s a kid running loose with pit bulls.”

It was the police who woke up his mom, Michelle. She went straight for her son.

“‘Why did you come outside?’” she says she asked him. “And he’s like, ‘Trying to be a big boy, trying to be a big boy.’”

Michelle explained to her son that he can’t go out alone. Don’t ever do it again, she told him. She says the police left after only a few minutes.

That was a Saturday.

On Monday, police came back. This time with a caseworker from Child Protective Services.

That day was a very bad day. The pit bulls – there were five of them in all – barked at the police. The police wanted to come in the house with the caseworker. The police report filed for the incident says Michelle was being “evasive” and wouldn’t allow anyone in the house to inspect it for safety. Felicity says they were okay having the CPS caseworker in the house, just not the police.

Things escalated.

"They said it's protocol for going straight for termination."

And the police officer on the scene decided to remove her brother from the home right there on the spot.

“And that was just the last day we’ve had him,” Felicity says.

At the time, Michelle Gach hoped it would be a short-term thing. She hoped she’d have her son back soon.

But the next day, that started to seem less likely

“That was my first court date,” Michelle says. “And they said it’s protocol for going straight for termination.”

Termination of her parental rights.

It’s a legal action that permanently separates a parent from their child. After a termination, the parent might not even see the child again.

That’s what the state did to Michelle Gach.

“Far more common … than we would think.”

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Normally, when CPS removes a child from a home, the goal is to reunify that child with their family as soon as possible. Parents are offered services, given a plan with specific goals to meet. And if they meet those goals, and the caseworker and the judge are both satisfied, the child can go back home.

That is not the way things went in this case. The state – through Child Protective Services – immediately moved to terminate Michelle Gach’s parental rights to her three-year-old son, who wanted to be a big boy.  

There is a reason for that. And we’ll get to it.

But this isn’t just a story about one family.

Because it turns out that parents’ rights are terminated all the time in Michigan, and once the decision is made, it’s almost never overturned in Michigan.

I went into this thinking that cases like this are rare, reserved only for the most extreme, most horrific incidents of child abuse or neglect. But it is not rare. It happens thousands of times a year in Michigan. It happens here more than it does in almost any other state.

Michigan, it turns out, is among the leading states for the number of kids whose parents’ rights have been terminated.

The person who first told me about Gach’s case is Vivek Sankaran. He runs the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan. The clinic filed the appeal in Gach’s case, and the appeals court still hasn’t ruled.

This clinic doesn’t just represent parents. Depending on the case, Sankaran’s staff may be the ones arguing in favor of termination. Which means Sankaran sees a lot of cases, from different sides.

"I think that the subset of cases where we could all agree that the parent's rights should be terminated ... the kid's found in horrible conditions, medically abused, sexually abused. In many ways, those are the easier cases, because we all agree on what should happen in those cases. But those are far from the typical termination case."

But he says when it comes to the permanent termination of parental rights in Michigan courts, the average person might have the wrong idea of what it takes to get to that point.

“Terminations happen in all sorts of cases,” he says. “I think that the subset of cases where we could all agree that the parent’s rights should be terminated … in which the kid’s found in horrible conditions, medically abused, sexually abused. In many ways, those are the easier cases, because we all agree on what should happen in those cases. But those are far from the typical termination case.

The typical termination cases that I see are ones where a case enters the system because of neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, and then the rights of the parents are subsequently terminated not because of the initial incident, but because of failures to comply with a service plan, failure to get housing, failure to get a job. So I think it’s far more common in moderate cases than we would think.”

And there’s one kind of case in particular that Sankaran says is a problem for him. It happens when a parent has their rights terminated for one child. Then later, another child is removed by CPS.

In these cases, Sankaran says the state has the right to move for termination of parental rights on the spot. There’s no service plan, parents get no chance to fix what they did wrong.

So he begins to tell me about a case.

“And the department worker in our case even admitted that, had it not been for the prior termination, they would have worked with the mother and just given her services and not even have removed the child from the home,” he says. “Because all of the other facts indicated that this was an isolated accident that happens to all of us. But because of this prior termination, everything got escalated, and not only did they file a petition, they immediately cut off visits between the child and his mother. This child had been living in this home for three years, since birth, with this mom. And they moved to termination immediately, and then they terminated her parental rights.”

A termination of parental rights trial is not like Law & Order. There's no jury. You do not have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This was Michelle Gach’s case.

After the motion to terminate, there was a trial. But a termination of parental rights trial is not like Law & Order. There’s no jury. You do not have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In fact, you don’t have to be guilty of child abuse at all. There are criminal charges for that. But terminating parental rights is a civil court issue – totally different.

Michelle Gach has never been convicted of child abuse or of neglect. There’s no violence of any kind on her criminal record.

But there were previous parental rights terminations.

And it all goes back to a tragic incident in 2001.

“I remember being on a high-speed chase on the way to the hospital,” Felicity Gach says. “And my mom  saying, ‘Go, go, go. Let’s get to the hospital, and we’ll deal with it then.’”

Felicity was in the car with her family. She wasn’t yet six years old.

“I don’t exactly remember who was driving or what, but I know someone was holding the baby … and we were just flying on the way to the hospital. We were on a high-speed car chase. I remember looking back and seeing nothing but police lights and cop cars, on the radio yelling at us, ‘Pull over, pull over.’ We finally got to the hospital. And then that’s when I don’t remember a whole lot after that.”

“We lived in Detroit on Westbrook,” says Felicity’s mom, Michelle, says. “Everybody knows, if something happens, you need medical attention like now, don’t call 911 in Detroit. You become your own 911.”

Michelle had to become her own 911 because her baby boy had stopped breathing. His name was Jose, he was just a few months old.

He’d been in and out of the hospital. He’d had a broken arm they knew about, which had happened when he was alone with his father, Michelle’s boyfriend. Jose also had a rash on his lips, Michelle says it was an infection called impetigo. And there were other things, but the doctors hadn’t quite figured it out.

They were all freaking out. Including the police.

Then one night, the baby, Jose, stopped breathing. And Michelle says she raced from the west side of Detroit to Farmington Hills, to what was then Botsford Hospital. She was driving like a maniac, flashing her lights, honking her horn. And the police were chasing after her.

When they made it to the hospital, Gach rushed her infant son inside, where doctors took over.

Then she waited. She was in a small room, with her boyfriend and her two daughters, Felicity and little Michanna, who was 18 months old.

“So the doctor comes in there,” Gach tells me “and says ‘I’m sorry but your son is dead.”

Gach says Felicity started freaking out. She started freaking out. They were all freaking out.

Including the police.

Not guilty, but still no parental rights.

The investigation into Jose's death started almost immediately.

“There was an officer … stated that basically this was the worst child abuse case ever, you know that he’s ever seen. Stated that my son was beaten to death. My son had clamps on his mouth. That he was suffocated. And all that was proven that it was not true.”

The medical examiner determined the death was due to bronchopneumonia. But Jose’s ribs were broken, possibly from when they tried to revive him, Michelle says. Possibly, an appeals court found, from the earlier injury, when Jose’s arm was broken.

But the death was ruled a homicide. The medical examiner claimed the baby’s injuries could have brought on the bronchopneumonia, or at least kept Jose from fighting it off.

Michelle Gach was never accused of hurting her son. She was accused of failing to protect him from his father.

And for that, a judge terminated her parental rights to her two daughters, Felicity and Michanna.

She appealed. The state court of appeals wrote in its opinion that Michelle had been warned her boyfriend had a prior conviction for child abuse, and to keep him away from their baby. It said she didn’t do that, and she continued to believe the kids would be safe around him. Also, the appeals court judges wrote that she “didn’t adequately follow up” on her daughter Michanna’s anemia.

In 2007, six years after the death of her baby boy, Wayne County prosecutors charged Michelle with second-degree murder, and involuntary manslaughter.

After hearing the case, a jury found her not-guilty on both counts.

Jose's father pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and served four years in prison.

"As my kids were growing up, as little kids, they would get mad," Michelle says, holding back tears. "'Why can't I ride with my mom?' Why can't I do this with my mom?' ... And here we go again."

And Michelle's not-guilty verdict in criminal court had no bearing on the result of her termination of parental rights cases in civil court. She has four children who are alive today. She doesn't have rights to any of them. She tells me she doesn't even see one of her daughters. She says the adoptive parents won't let her. Her two oldest, Felicity and Michanna, still see their mother regularly. 

"It sucks that, when, as my kids were growing up, as little kids, they would get mad,” Michelle says, holding back tears. “’Why can’t I ride with my mom?’ ‘Why can’t I do this with my mom?’ And, you know, so many things dictated, and it sucks. And here we go again.”

Last year, Michelle Gach had her parental rights terminated again. In all of her parental rights termination cases, the death of her son Jose was one of the main factors. Gach continued to tell judges her son died of pneumonia, not abuse. Judges took that as evidence she wouldn't protect her remaining kids from the man who plead guilty to manslaughter in Jose's death – even though Michelle now says she's terrified of that man, that he abused her and she's terrified of him seeing her or her kids ever again. 

When Michelle gave birth four years ago, this time to a son, she says she met with a Child Protective Services worker. She says she submitted to drug tests, she talked to the caseworker about her ex-boyfriend and said she was done with him. She says the caseworker closed the case. She was free to be a parent.

And she was, for three years. Then one night she worked late, and her three year old woke up early. He decided to be a big boy and take his dog for a walk. Child Protective Services got involved. Her rights were terminated.

She was denied visitation. She says she hasn’t seen her son since that day in August 2014 when he was taken from her.

Over the years, since her first termination case, Michelle Gach was able to rebuild her  relationship with two of her daughters. Since her daughter Felicity turned 18, she can see her mom whenever she wants. Michanna is a little younger. She has to be supervised. But her son  – Michelle Gach hasn’t seen him since he was taken away. He was three then. He’s four now.

Felicity and Michanna both get to visit their brother once a month. But Felicity says there are rules that can make the visits hard.

“He wants to come home,” she says. “He always asks, ‘Where is everybody?’  Why don’t they come see me? And I sit there with like a puzzle on my face like, ‘I want to tell you, but I can’t lose my time of seeing you.’”

Michelle tells me this Mother’s Day, her whole extended family is planning a trip together. It’s a new tradition. She went two years ago, along with her son. But now he’s gone, and she says she won’t go without him.

She tries to avoid going lots of places these days.

“‘Cause it kills me every day seeing other people happy with their kids,” she says. “I stopped going to the malls. I stopped going to a lot of restaurants and doing other things because I see so many people happy with their children, when that should be us.”

What the numbers show

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Terminating a parent's rights to their children is one of the most significant powers given to the government.

One of my biggest questions is: How often does it happen?

Turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer.

Each year, the state Department of Health and Human Services reports to the legislature how many kids had both parents’ rights terminated that year. In an email, a DHHS spokesman told me there were 506 kids in that situation during the state’s 2013 fiscal year. In 2014, the number was 150 kids. But I was told the 2014 number is still preliminary, and might not be accurate.  

DHHS also sent me to the State Court Administrative Office for statistics. SCAO’s numbers show that there were 2,567 petitions to terminate parental rights in Michigan courts in 2014, affecting 4,215 kids.

But I have reasons to doubt those numbers, too. For example, when you look at it by county, some things don’t look right. SCAO’s numbers in previous years show that in Kent County, there were zero petitions to terminate parental rights in any of the years from 2006 to 2008. A Kent County judge told me it’s not possible that’s true.

So I also went seeking answers from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Their numbers are not just the kids affected each year, but the total number of kids still in the child welfare system who had two parents whose rights were terminated sometime in the past. In Michigan, there were 3,636 kids in that situation in 2014.

Michigan is among the leading states in the nation for the number of kids in the child welfare system who've been permanently separated from their parents by law.

So, if you’ve been keeping track, the number of kids affected by termination of parental rights in 2014 was either 150, 4,215 or 3,636 depending on how you define “affected” and whom you ask.

But let’s stick with the federal numbers for a minute – 3,636. We can compare it to other states, and see that Michigan had the fourth-highest number of kids in the child welfare system whose parents’ rights had been terminated. Michigan Radio also analyzed the number based on each state’s total child population, to get a rate. Michigan has the tenth-highest rate of children in the child welfare system with parental rights terminations.   

By those measures, Michigan is among the leading states in the nation for the number of kids in the child welfare system who’ve been permanently separated from their parents by law.

“An emotionally-laden act.”

To try to get a better handle on what’s going on with parental rights terminations in Michigan, I sat down with Colin Parks. He leads the Child Protective Services division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

I asked him what he thinks is important in the data.  

“For me, the important data is around termination,” he said. “Because it really speaks to permanency for kids, and that’s certainly something we want to be aware of.”

When a termination of parental rights happens in Michigan, most of the time it’s Parks’ agency that gets the ball rolling.

Typically, Parks says caseworkers are legally required to send certain cases to court.

And if a judge agrees that a child should be placed in foster care, a clock starts ticking for the parents. Usually, a plan is given to them. They’re offered services to fix whatever problem led to their children being taken away. And then the parents have to make progress. All the while, the clock is ticking. Foster care is meant to be temporary. And if parents don’t or can’t achieve the goals in their plan within a certain amount of time, usually it’s 12 months, they can lose rights to their kids forever.

“It’s a very emotionally-laden act to think about the termination of a parent’s rights,” Parks says.  

"I had many, many cases where we would file to petition to terminate parental rights ... And ever since I started this work, I was a parent, and so you bring your own personal stuff into that and you see what that would be like."

He wasn’t always the guy in the nice suit at the top at Michigan Child Protective Services. For a long time, he was a caseworker.

“I did the work for almost 11 years,” he says, “and I had many, many cases where we would file to petition to terminate parental rights … And ever since I started this work, I was a parent, and so you bring your own personal stuff into that and you see what that would be like.”

There are some cases that there’s just no question. The law would require parental rights to be terminated.

Cases of horrific physical and sexual abuse. Cases of drug addiction, alcohol addiction, where kids are left to fend for themselves, alone and hungry. Cases even where the child dies, or is murdered by the parent.

These cases are not exactly common. But they’re not as rare as we would all hope.

And state caseworkers see it all, up close. It is not an easy job.

Parks says even when there was no doubt in his mind that a parent should lose their rights, the decision to go through with it was tough.

“I’ll tell you as a caseworker, even if I move towards termination and even if it was statutorily required and justified by any reasonable standard, those kids still loved their family and they still wanted to be with their family,” Parks says. “And so for us to understand that and understand that, regardless, if you’re moving towards termination, you’re going to affect that child for the rest of their lives.

In Michigan, many kids have been affected. In 2014, Michigan was fourth in the nation for the number of kids in the child welfare system whose parents’ rights were terminated.

And yet, that number is lower than it used to be – by a lot.  According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of kids in Michigan’s child welfare system who went through parental rights terminations dropped by more than half from 2005 through 2014.

“Again, I started doing this work in 1998,” says Parks. “And I can tell you in that time, I’ve seen a sea change in terms of perception and engagement with families over time. Which is not to say that anybody was doing anything wrong 10, 15, 20 years ago. But the data we had, the resources we had were different.”

Now, Parks says there are better services. There’s more of a commitment to reunifying families.

“Is this job for you?”

If there’s a job out there that is either more important, or more difficult than being a caseworker in Child Protective Services, I haven’t heard of it.

CPS workers regularly see things that are worse than many of us will see in our entire lives. Children who haven’t been fed, parents in the throes of addiction, children who’ve been beaten or sexually assaulted. Families in crisis.

And how the caseworker approaches that case, the decisions they make, can affect the child and the family forever. When it goes well, when they really get a chance to help someone, they can’t talk about it. Very few people will even know the work they did.

When it goes wrong, it’s front page news.

And either way, caseworkers can’t talk about it. Not with people like me. Not with reporters.

So I asked someone I know who knows caseworkers.

"I don't think anybody's really prepared to deal with those types of situations ... no matter how much training you get, you'll never really know how it may affect you."

Brittany Bartkowiak is a colleague, or she used to be, before she decided to leave State of Opportunity to get back to her true calling: to be a social worker, helping kids.

Anyway, because I know her, and because I know she knows other people who work in the child welfare system, I asked her to tell me what it’s like when they get together and talk to each other.

“What’s the impression you get from that?” I asked. “Are people just way too overwhelmed, they can’t do the job? Are people not able to do the job the way it should be done?”

“All of the above, Bartkowiak says. "Very overwhelmed. And also that the state doesn’t prepare people well enough to actually hold those types of positions. So in one of my classes, I actually had to watch like the DHHS training video that they give to future CPS workers”">That video happens to be available online.

“So as you learn more about these jobs, the video’s narrator says at one point, “We’d like you to look into yourself and ask, ‘Is this job for me?’”

“And it was just so cheesy,” Bartkowiak says. “And it’s like anybody watching that, I don’t know how that tape could prepare them for what an actual home would be like.”

“Do you feel like people come out of their social work programs prepared, coming out of college?” I asked.

“I don’t think anybody’s really prepared to deal with those types of situations. I mean, you know, no matter how much training you get, you’ll never really know how it may affect you.”

The state’s child welfare system is monitored by outside agencies. One of the monitors came from a lawsuit against the state that was settled in 2008.

That monitoring identifies problems that still need to be worked on.

But one way in which the state has improved is in training its caseworkers, corny training videos aside. That is getting better. Even if it’s not all the way better yet, according to some.

Even if the system is good, it’s not perfect.

The civil death penalty

And it’s not just caseworkers who struggle with this work.

Earlier this month, I called an attorney who frequently deals with cases involving parental rights terminations. Chris Piatkowski is based in Livingston County, and she represents clients in all different kinds of juvenile cases. Sometimes she represents kids, sometimes she represents parents.

And she told me the work she does is very difficult work. You see things no one wants to see.

“You know, there are pictures that are not always the best pictures to look at,” she said. “You have abuse photos of marks and scars and beatings and things people don’t want to talk about, much less look at. So some of the attorneys that initially take these cases may not stay in this area once they get a case that is a little more serious.”

“How do you get through it?” I asked.

“I’ve been doing it a really long time.”

Others don’t make it so long.  

Piatkowski says it helps she had great training as an attorney starting out in Illinois. She says most attorneys starting out in Michigan, working on cases like this, don’t get the kind of support she got. Mostly, she says, it’s attorneys in private practice, working by themselves. Sometimes the state bar, or another organization, puts on a training seminar, but it’s not always easy for attorneys to get to the training. It’s not always easy for them, if they’re new, to figure out, really, how to do the job.

The cases are mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically demanding.

And on top of that, Piatkowski tells me, the pay isn’t good.

“There’s not a lot of money in this area of work,” she says. “And if you’re a new attorney, you have to pay off your student loans quickly. And so as a result of that, attorneys that are coming into the field are picking different areas that may be more lucrative that may not be as emotional or social, or require attorneys to travel places every day.”

Fewer new attorneys coming in to do these kinds of cases just makes the problem even worse for the other attorneys struggling to keep up with caseloads.

And the stakes in these cases, the importance of getting things right, is really high.

“Courts describe termination cases as the civil death penalty. This is the most serious sanction the state can impose, besides sending someone to jail,” says Sankaran of U of M's Child Advocacy Law Clinic. “Yet even in these cases, we tolerate a system where parents don’t get quality counsel to navigate the process.”

"My fear is ... you have terminations occurring that just shouldn't be taking place."

I met Sankaran in his office in December, right as most law students were finishing up finals. It’s a nice office, filled with pictures of his own kids. And, a few handwritten notes, in children’s handwriting, thanking him and the clinic staff for their work.

This law clinic handles all kinds of cases involving kids.

But Sankaran says he’s noticed a trend in some cases where parental rights are at stake.

“Parents don’t get lawyers who are paid well enough, trained well enough,” Sankaran says. “And as a result, their cases, when they’re heard, aren’t fully presented. And my fear is that because of this, you have terminations occurring that just shouldn’t be taking place.”

And there are far more of these cases than most people realize. The federal government says there was a total of more than 3,600 kids in Michigan’s child welfare system in 2014 who had two parents whose rights had been terminated. That was the fourth-highest number in the country.

“So I think it’s part of the culture here,” Sankaran says. “We do tend to terminate in many cases. My fear is, first, that we’re terminating in cases in which parents should be getting their children back. But second, I really worry about what happens to children post-termination. Because this idea that children are then immediately or swiftly adopted just hasn’t been borne out to be true by the data.”

Instead, Sankaran says, kids have their parents’ rights terminated, then they just wait. Ideally, they would be adopted. That’s kind of the point of the termination, so that new parents can step in and assume the rights the biological parents have lost.

But going back to that federal data I mentioned before, those 3,600 kids whose parents’ rights were terminated, those are all kids who had not been adopted.

“And I think we need to be real with ourselves and realize that terminations are often not the best thing for children,” Sankaran says. “But we may not know that until two years later, when we have failed to find this child a home. And in those circumstances, it may be better for the child to have a relationship with a flawed parent than no parent at all.”

Not that long ago, state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, thought he found a possible solution for some of the kids who weren’t adopted after their parents’ rights were terminated.  

“What I was seeking to do with that legislation,” Jones told me in his office, “is to say if the parents, by some miracle, did rehab their life, two, three, four years later, and the children still had not been adopted out, they would have the option to go back to the judge and say, ‘I’ve now fixed my life, I’m now employed. Could I try again?’”

It was a bill to create a possibility in the system for a do-over. Jones introduced it twice, most recently in the fall as part of a package of bills to make changes to the state’s foster care system. The other bills in that package moved forward. The bill that would create a possibility for biological parents to get a second shot at having rights to their children did not.

“And why was that not okay?” I asked.

“[The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] felt that the language just wasn’t going to work for them, and we’re still in negotiation. But at this time, the bill is not moving forward.”

Jones’ bill, to be clear, would not have given parents the right to petition for reinstatement of their rights. Instead it would have created a way for a judge or DHHS to petition for reinstatement.

So I asked DHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton what the problem was with the bill.

He wrote in an email:

“Our concern is that this would apply to fewer than 10 children per year. We already have a mechanism in place for restoring parental custody through a legal guardianship. This existing process meets our goal of finding a permanent home for children in foster care without restoring the terminated parental rights.”

For his part, Jones says he knows his proposal would only apply in rare cases – “by some miracle” as he put it.

"If you've ever witnessed a child that's been food deprived, you would certainly understand ... it's sickening."

And many people would agree, there are plenty of parents who have their rights terminated and shouldn’t ever get them back.

“If you’ve ever witnessed a child that’s been food deprived, you would certainly understand,” says Jones. Before he became a lawmaker, Jones served 30 years in the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department. “I have seen kids that literally, you sit them down at the kitchen table, you put supper out in front of them, you put some food on their plate and they eat it as fast as possible. And then they sit there and stare at the food, and you say, ‘Well, you can have more.’ And they say, ‘Well, we can, we’ve never been allowed to have more.’

And then you watch them, they start putting it in their pockets and taking it to their bedroom and hiding it because they think they’re going to be starved. And when you see that, or you see a case where a father has raped his own child, or you see a case where a mother has horribly beaten their children, or burned them with devices, it’s sickening. I mean, that’s what I have seen in my police work.”

It’s enough to make you wonder if sometimes the system isn’t too lenient. That it can wait too long to terminate.

In Kentwood, near where I live in Grand Rapids, two summers ago, a 12-year-old boy walked onto a playground and randomly stabbed another child with a knife. The boy, Jamarion Lawhorn, then walked down the street, borrowed a cell phone and called 911. He asked the dispatcher to take him away, he said he was fed up with life. The boy Jamarion stabbed, his name was Connor. He died.

Local TV station WOOD-TV investigated the case and found Children’s Protective Services had confirmed that Jamarion was a victim of abuse a year before the stabbing. By law, CPS should have removed him from his home then, and begun the process to terminate parental rights. The CPS worker didn’t do that. And a year later, another child died.

So you can’t just say the state needs to be more lenient and it should never take away rights to a child.

It’s more difficult, and more complicated than that.

“When you’re talking about people, it’s impossible to be perfect,” Jones says. “Sometimes, the caseworker is thinking ‘Well, perhaps, Mom or Dad simply spank their child and they’re not an abusive person’ and then they find out a month later they are. I think there are cases like that. And it’s tough, because nobody wants to take away the kids unless they absolutely have to.

And Jones says he’s never seen a case, personally, where a parents’ rights were terminated when they shouldn’t have been.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

“A more intrusive act by the government is difficult to imagine.”

Paul Denenfeld is a judge in Kent County, and petitions to terminate a parent’s rights come into his court all the time. It’s up to each judge to decide whether to actually terminate. In Michigan, there are no jury trials for termination of parental rights. And these cases are civil cases, not criminal. That’s an important distinction because people can be criminally convicted of child abuse. But you don’t have to have a criminal conviction to have your rights terminated in civil court.

"A petition can be filed because a parent is homeless. A petition can be filed because a parent doesn't have food to feed his or her child. That's the neglect part of abuse and neglect. Sometimes those folks are just down and out."

“A petition can be filed because a parent is homeless,” Denenfeld says. “A petition can be filed because a parent doesn’t have food to feed his or her child. That’s the neglect part of abuse and neglect. Sometimes those folks are just down and out.”

“When you see a motion to terminate, is the underlying cause more often those sort of poverty-based neglect cases, or is it more often that there’s an actual physical abuse, or sexual abuse of the child?” I ask him.

“To be honest with you, there’s more neglect than there is abuse,” he says. “I mean, there’s plenty of abuse, and that means both physical abuse of children as well as sexual abuse of children – really, it’s kind of shocking about how common both of those things are. But the majority of these cases are neglect cases – not properly supervising children, medical neglect, not taking kids to the doctors when it’s clear that they require medical care. Or just plain being poor, not being able to keep a home, a stable home.”

The way the system is supposed to work, if a child is removed from the home, the state offers services to the parents to help them fix whatever problems are going on. And you have time to fix it and get your kids back.

“I will frequently tell parents I won’t terminate parental rights because you’re poor,” Denenfeld says. “I think that’s fundamentally wrong, and I’m not certain that it’s even really lawful.”

It’s clearly not lawful in two states. Ohio and North Carolina both have laws on the books that explicitly say parental rights can never be terminated due to problems that are based solely on poverty.

Michigan doesn’t have that law. It comes down to each caseworker or judge to make a decision.

So the parents, usually, are offered services. And Denenfeld says there’s a checkup every three months to gauge progress. Generally, parents have about a year to meet the goals in their case and get their kids back. Much beyond that, and their rights can be terminated. Forever.

“One of the things I say to parents … usually around the six-month mark, is I look at parents and say ‘Folks, the government took your children away from you. A more intrusive act by the government is difficult to imagine. Most people would be pounding on the government’s door saying ‘How do I get my kids back?’”

Sometimes parents will reach some of their goals, but not all of them. They may miss a visit, or a parenting class. They may have a relapse.

Deciding when to give leeway, when to give parents more time, and when to just cut them off and terminate rights – it comes down to judge’s discretion. One judge could decide it one way, another judge the opposite.

“And I do think that there are judges who probably make faster decisions to put a case on a termination track than other judges,” Denenfeld says. “I happen to be a judge who really believes that these cases are about trying to reunify families. And so I give parents as much time as I feel like I can. But that requires parents to work with me, if you will, and actually take advantage of these services.”

The statistics on termination of parental rights – those that are available – show that more parents seem to be reaching those goals. The numbers show a decline in kids whose parents rights have been terminated in recent years.  

But Michigan still has more kids in its child welfare system who’ve gone through termination than almost any other state.

"You're talking about whether or not somebody's children are going to be taken from them ... There are a lot of people who would say that that is a more severe punishment than going to prison."

Whether that continues kind of depends on parents. But it also depends on those services Denenfeld talks about. It depends on judges to make the right call in tough circumstances. It depends on the law. It depends on caseworkers and attorneys and caseloads and courts and so many things.

The system depends on all of these different people and institutions to get it right.

And one thing I’ve learned, it’s really important that they do.

“I mean you’re talking about whether or not somebody’s children’s are going to be taken from them,” says Denenfeld. “There are a lot of people who would say that that is a more severe punishment than going to prison – to have your children taken away, to be told you no longer have any say in these children’s lives. You can’t even see these children unless the adoptive parents decide to let you. The stakes are high.”  

People keep telling me the system can’t be perfect.

But maybe it can be better.

Music used in this documentary:

Melody Woodham – Farewell
Dianne Verdonk & Rutger Muller - Laptop & Cello Improvisation 13 January 2010
Chasmo - Last Summer
dublab's cc10 mix
Das Jesus – Guitar
Steven O'Brien - Four Experiments for Piano: III. Andante

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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